Weekly Brief: Vegas AV Gamble while German Big 3 get Burned

Self-driving start-up Halo will launch a commercial driverless car service in Las Vegas this year.

Unlike Waymo’s service in Phoenix or Baidu’s Apollo Go service in Beijing, Halo plans to operate a fleet of remotely controlled self-driving cars that customers can summon to their present locations with the tap of a mobile app. When vehicles arrive, customers can get behind the wheel and drive wherever they need to go, with the vehicles operating in a traditional driver mode. Upon arrival, no parking is needed; the Halo moves driverlessly to its next pick-up location.

There’s a lot to be excited about here. By harnessing AV technology, Halo can potentially eliminate inefficiencies in traditional car-sharing services and keep vehicles moving to their greatest points of need. The start-up will lean heavily on T-Mobile’s 5G network to connect its fleet of five vehicles to its team of remote operators. Remotely controlling a self-driving car on 4G simply would not be possible given limitations in speed and bandwidth. The all-electric Halo vehicles have no LiDAR onboard; instead they depend on a mix of cameras, radar and ultrasonics. Using an advanced AI algorithm, the vehicles learn in the background while humans are at the wheel, thus building a feedback loop to achieve Level 3 capabilities over time.

Excitement aside, there are some obvious red flags here. Halo is yet to reveal how much the service will cost or how the company will sterilize vehicles in between uses. Getting into an Uber is strange enough these days, let alone a self-driving car that a stranger was driving several minutes before. The company is also mum on how liability will work if a driver gets into a crash. Then there is the most obvious question of all: why will customers pay for the service of driving themselves in downtown Las Vegas, when they can pay a cab or a ride-hailing service to do the same, without any liability or effort on their part? If it’s the novelty of driving a self-driving car that is no longer operating in self-driving mode, Halo may have trouble finding traction.

In other news last week, the European Commission fined Volkswagen and BMW €875M ($1Bn) for operating an emissions cartel for the past 30 years. The cartel worked like a good old fashion drug cartel, as an alliance of manufacturers colluding to keep prices high by restricting competition. Only sub out the drugs and the mob and plug in Germany’s big three carmakers of VW, BMW and Daimler. The European Commission claims that the carmakers met in secret and agreed to not implement or pursue cleaner emissions technologies that would have made diesel passenger cars less polluting. VW and BMW basically copped to the crime when they settled outside of court. Daimler is the snitch of the three and appears to have gotten off scot-free for turning the other two in.

“Today’s decision is about how legitimate technical cooperation went wrong,” said the Commission’s executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager. “And we do not tolerate it when companies collude. It is illegal under EU Antitrust rules. Competition and innovation on managing car pollution are essential for Europe to meet our ambitious Green Deal objectives. And this decision shows that we will not hesitate to take action against all forms of cartel conduct putting in jeopardy this goal.”


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