Weekly Brief: Waymo uses secret VR world for self-driving cars

Think you know everything that self-driving car start-ups are up to? Not by a virtual mile reports Andrew Tolve.

Until last week the race to build self-driving technology felt like a dead heat among lots of promising companies testing lots of funny-looking vehicles on public roads. Some might have been a little ahead, others a little behind but no one had any clear advantage.

However, the geeks of Silicon Valley are getting very excited about Google’s Waymo they claim could be ‘light years’ ahead of the rest.

That’s because it is blending virtual simulation with real-world trials that call to mind the Area 51 nuclear tests from days of yore. Here's what we now know courtesy of an exclusive profile in The Atlantic: Waymo has built a virtual world called Carcraft that allows it to test its self-driving vehicles thousands of times a day, cruising challenging stretches of road in a 3D simulator over and over until the sensors and software learn from their mistakes. Carcraft includes full virtual replicas of Mountainview, Austin and Phoenix; last year on these virtual roadways Waymo cars logged 2.5Bn miles. That compared to the 3M miles that real-world Waymo cars logged on public roads. Oh, by the way, those measly 3M miles exceeded those of all Waymo competitors.

What's more, Google has built a secret city in the middle of nowhere in California’s Central Valley, which consists of real buildings, sidewalks, traffic lights and hazards. The city is called Castle and all of its streets, intersections and roundabouts are modelled precisely after situations that have given Waymo cars trouble in either real life or in Carcraft. Everything from Level 1 to Level 4 autonomous vehicles buzz around all day long testing and retesting the Waymo software and sensors that propel them.

Does this mean that Waymo is a sure-fire bet to win the race for autonomous vehicle supremacy? Of course not! Does it mean that it’s far ahead of its competitors in terms of depth of trials and confidence in its ability to handle any given situation? That really depends on your opinion whether the virtual world can match the robust nature of real-world testing – anyone who has seen the movie Sully will appreciate how VR can be of little use when deciding to land a plane on the Hudson River.

In other news, Audi wants to use solar power to increase the range of its electric vehicles. The carmaker is partnering with Chinese solar company Hanergy to put thin film flexible solar cells into panoramic glass roofs. The end goal is to feed solar energy into the internal vehicle electrical system, including air conditioning and other electrical appliances, thus freeing up more of the primary battery to power the engine. Panasonic has built a similar application for Toyota Prius Prime vehicles in Japan, and Elon Musk has discussed similar plans for future Tesla Model 3s. The first Audi prototype is due out by the end of 2017.

Uber’s epic search for a new CEO has finally come to a close. Dara Khosrowshahi, the current CEO at Expedia, will leave his post to take the helm at the embattled ridesharing giant. Chief among his new to-do's will be to address Uber's sexist work culture, steer it through a legal morass and help it turn a profit, as the company is on pace to lose more than $2Bn (£1.6Bn) in 2017 based on Q2 financials and that's just the short list.

Bosch launched Perfectly Keyless, an app that turns a smartphone into a car key. As drivers approach their vehicles, on-board sensors identify their smartphones and automatically unlock the car. No key is needed to start the engine either or to lock the car again at the end of a journey. The solution also allows owners to send virtual keys via the cloud to other smartphones – a plus for car-sharing providers.

The British government gave the green light for the first platooning trials of heavy goods vehicles on UK roads. The pilot will be led by transport experts TRL in concert with a host of trucking and logistics companies, including DAF Trucks and DHL. The rest of 2017 will be devoted to driving simulations and driver training, with the first on-road trials slated to begin in 2018.

Masternaut and Telefleet launched a telematics insurance product for the UK motor fleet market. The Telefleet offering will integrate Masternaut telematics to track how drivers of light commercial vehicles perform behind the wheel. It then will reward those who do it safely and within the speed limit with lower insurance premiums. The product also aims to speed up claims management thanks to instant access to crash data.

Finally, crash avoidance technology is starting to save lives according to a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The study examined 5,000 crashes in 2015 on US highways and revealed that lane-departure warnings and blind spot monitoring lowered rates of single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes by 11%. They lowered the rates of injury crashes by 21%. Had those two technologies been integrated into all passenger vehicles in 2015, the study concluded that there would have been nearly 85,000 fewer crashes and 55,000 injuries related to crashes.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry sources.

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