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Volvo, Ford and Baidu’s autonomous polygamy

Baidu and Volvo announce their partnership: But apparently it isn’t exclusive… (Photo: Volvo)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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Baidu plays the field, Waymo gets a ticket to ride in Cali and Tesla is off to court: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

People always say that Volvos are a safe bet: well the Swedish carmaker has made our roundup once again this week – and for that very reason. Last week, it announced a new partnership with Chinese internet giant Baidu to mass produce self-driving electric cars in China.

The partnership in a nutshell: Volvo brings the auto industry expertise (i.e. the cars), Baidu brings the software (its autonomous driving platform Apollo). Together they develop Level 4 autonomous cars to eventually sell to Chinese customers. Volvo Cars’ President and CEO Hakan Samuelsson says “…Baidu is a leading player, and the market there offers huge opportunities for us as the supplier of choice for autonomous fleets." Baidu’s President Ya-Qin Zhang says it chose Volvo due to its "long-standing safety credentials”.

But don’t feel too special Volvo; you weren’t the only one. Baidu also announced a similar partnership with Ford for developing and testing autonomous cars on China’s roads over the next two years. In terms of the he said, she said from both sides, it was pretty much the same as for the Volvo venture: China is a potentially massive market to crack (good for Ford) and Ford has vehicle expertise (good for Baidu). These merger statements may seem formulaic – and to a certain extent, they are. But it’s the nature of cooperation: each party wants something the other has. And like we’ve always said at 2025AD, consolidation will eventually win this race.

So it looks like the Swedish and the Americans will be joining the Germans as they try and crack China: but they come with the backing of the biggest player in town.

Waymo’s golden ticket

Last week, the unavoidable “big story” all over the “front pages” was that Waymo was granted the first permit to test driverless cars on Californian roads without a safety driver.

The permit, issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), means the self-driving spin-off from Alphabet can test its fully driverless capabilities at day and night; on city and rural roads and on highways at up to 65mph – provided the weather isn’t too bad. So Waymo will soon be flaunting its prowess past the windows of its permit-less competitors who are nestled in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and Palo Alto.

The marked area is Waymo’s new Californian playground (Photo: Waymo)

And that’s pretty much it. While it may be of some interest that other firms can now follow suit in California, there always has to be a first – and it isn’t surprising that it’s Waymo, given its almost decade-long history of testing in the Golden State. Besides, it’s nothing new: Waymo’s driverless vehicles are already angering locals by testing without a backup driver on the roads of Arizona. So while probably newsworthy, in and of itself, to me, it’s nothing to get too excited about.

What’s more interesting is the fact that Waymo only casually dropped into conversation a few weeks back that it had started to charge riders in its Arizona operation, making it the first self-driving car developer to launch commercial services. It’s almost as if Waymo wants its roll-out to fly under the radar: as is astutely pointed out in this ARS Technica analysis. That way it can avoid the media hype and the inevitable expectation that it brings. As the old proverb goes: softly softly catchee monkey.

Autopilot crash victim throws the book at Tesla

For Florida resident Shawn Hudson, his Tesla Model S with Autopilot did exactly what it should for 98,000 miles of commuting: it safely took over the highway driving, letting Mr Hudson relax, check his phone and send emails. Until one day it didn’t, and he careered into a disabled, empty Ford Fiesta on the Florida Turnpike suffering severe permanent injuries.

Last week, his legal team decided to file a lawsuit against Elon Musk’s electric car kingdom claiming that the firm has “duped consumers”, accusing it of negligence, breach of implied warranty and any other charge that might stick.

If stationary vehicles are such a problem, perhaps the desert is the place for using Tesla’s Autopilot (Photo: Tesla)

Of course, Tesla says “it is the driver’s responsibility to remain attentive to their surroundings and in control of the vehicle at all times.” But apparently stationary vehicles are quite a menace to Autopilot, with Tesla’s very own manual even stating: “Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) …”

Now, should a system that can’t avoid a stationary object really be marketed and sold as ‘Autopilot?’ No. It takes us back to the issue of autonomous ambiguity. But at the same time, some may argue that we’re at a stage where consumers really should know better. For me, that’s a pretty dangerous assumption to make. And it’s why we’re so driven at 2025AD.com to keep informing the public as to where exactly automated driving is at.  

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                         

René Tellers

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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