Launching Otto and other autonomous perils

By John Bendel, contributing editor-at-large

In a speech earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx predicted a "tsunami of change" for transportation over the next three decades. He cited the growing U.S. population, the movement of people south, west, and back to the cities. He also spoke of autonomous vehicles.

That tsunami of change remains to be seen, but there has certainly been a tsunami of news about autonomous everything.

In March, for example, a self-driving Google car bumped a bus in California - no big deal, but it wasn't supposed to happen. Self-driving cars are promoted as much safer than human drivers; hitting anything is a no-no.

Self-driving Tesla cars have had more serious incidents. One sideswiped a stalled vehicle in China. Another crashed over 39 planters and into a wall in California. There were no injuries in either incident, except perhaps the sterling image of autonomous vehicles.

Driverless car kills driver

The worst case was a Tesla that self-drove itself under a trailer on U.S. 27A near Williston, Fla., killing the driver of the car. In a press release the National Transportation Safety Board reported that the collision involved a 53-foot semitrailer in combination with a 2014 Freightliner Cascadia truck tractor and a 2015 Tesla Model S.

"According to system performance data downloaded from the car, the indicated vehicle speed was 74 mph just prior to impact, and the posted speed limit was 65 mph," the release stated.

Self-driving vehicles are supposed to observe speed limits. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into that one.

Another incident was worse news for autonomous truck proponents. In July, a terrorist drove a truck into a crowd in Nice, France, killing more than 70 people. But what does that have to do with autonomous trucks?

Trucks as weapons of terror

The driver who used that truck as a weapon was on a suicide mission. With an autonomous truck under remote control terrorists could do that or worse without costing the life of the terrorist, a fact not lost on the feds.

"We know these terrorists," U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Carlin told an automotive conference in Detroit.

Terrorists don't have the capability yet, he said, but they're working on it.

So are the good guys. Researchers at the University of Michigan have hacked a 2001 school bus and a 2006 Class 8 semi tractor.

"With these two vehicles, we demonstrate how simple it is to replicate the kinds of attacks used on consumer vehicles and that it is possible to use the same attack on other vehicles that use the SAE J1939 standard," the researcher said in a submission to an electronic security conference. SAE J1939 is an electronic standard that allows vehicle components from different manufacturers to communicate.

"We show safety-critical attacks that include the ability to accelerate a truck in motion, disable the driver's ability to accelerate, and disable the vehicle's engine brake," the University of Michigan researchers said.

The possibility exists for remote attacks, they noted.

Remote thievery

Common thieves are working on it, too. In Houston, according to The Wall Street Journal, two thieves were caught on camera using a laptop to start a 2010 Jeep Wrangler. That Jeep was one of five reported stolen in the area at the time.

These guys are probably looking forward to the day they can steal self-driving cars without leaving home. They'll simply hack in remotely and have the car drive itself to the chop shop.

Despite these ominous incidents, autonomous vehicle development is accelerating. The financial research firm CB Insights says that more than 30 major companies are working on autonomous vehicles, including technology giants Apple, Google and Microsoft. In the truck arena, CB Insights lists truck manufacturers Iveco, Daimler and Volvo.

Not on the list are component makers like ZF, which recently demonstrated what it calls Evasive Maneuver Assist (EMA) that works with other safety systems, like ZF's Advanced Emergency Braking System.

According to ZF, if braking is insufficient to avoid a rear-end collision, as may be the case on slippery roads or if traffic hazards appear suddenly in blind curves or after hill crests, the EMA directs the truck with its trailer independently and safely toward the desired open lane or hard shoulder, even at maximum speed.

"Our innovative function simultaneously evades, brakes and stabilizes automatically at all speeds, with any load in the semi-trailer truck and with any type of semi-trailer," said a ZF executive. "This function helps to avoid rear-end collisions."

Making an old truck drive itself

It isn't entirely driverless or autonomous, but it's very close and a critical step in that direction. Unlike autonomous trucks already demonstrated by Daimler and Volvo, Evasive Maneuver Assist could be on the road in model year 2019 or 2020 trucks, according to ZF.

Meanwhile, a startup outfit called Otto wants to make your current truck autonomous. Wired explained it in an unflattering headline last May.

"30K Retrofit Turns Dumb Semis into Self-Driving Robots," it blared.

The story explained that four former Google employees have launched Otto to build kits that will retrofit regular trucks into autonomous trucks. The company says it has three Volvo VNL 780s on the road in California testing the system. As the Wired headline said, they estimate an Otto retrofit system will cost about $30,000.

There were some sobering words from Duke Drinkard, Chairman of the Technology and Maintenance Council, and an often-quoted expert on heavy trucks.

"The automated truck holds great promise," he said in a recent essay, "but serious questions remain unanswered and much work remains before this new technology bears full fruit for trucking."

In August, Uber announced it is buying Otto for an estimated $680 million, assuring Uber has access to Otto's technology to further its own foray into self-driving vehicles. LL