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How self-driving cars got stuck in the slow lane | Self-driving cars

“I would be shocked if we do not achieve full self-driving safer than a human this year,” said Tesla chief executive, Elon Musk, in January. For anyone who follows Musk’s commentary, this might sound familiar. In 2020, he promised autonomous cars the same year, saying: “There are no fundamental challenges.” In 2019, he promised Teslas would be able to drive themselves by 2020 – converting into a fleet of 1m “robotaxis”. He has made similar predictions every year going back to 2014.

From late 2020, Tesla expanded beta trials of its “Full Self-Driving” software (FSD) to about 60,000 Tesla owners, who must pass a safety test and pay $12,000 for the privilege. The customers will pilot the automated driver assistance technology, helping to refine it before a general release.

With the beta rollout, Tesla is following the playbook of software companies, “where the idea is you get people to iron out the kinks”, says Andrew Maynard, director of the Arizona State University risk innovation lab. “The difficulty being that when software crashes, you just reboot the computer. When a car crashes, it’s a little bit more serious.”

Placing fledgling technology into untrained testers’ hands is an unorthodox approach for the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry. Other companies, such as Alphabet-owned Waymo, General Motors-backed Cruise and AV startup Aurora, use safety operators to test technology on predetermined routes. While the move has bolstered Tesla’s populist credentials with fans, it has proved reputationally risky. Since putting its tech into the hands of the people, a stream of videos documenting reckless-looking FSD behaviour has racked up numerous views online.

There’s the video of a car in FSD mode veering sharply into oncoming traffic, prompting the driver to swerve off the road into a field. The one that shows a car repeatedly attempting to turn on to train tracks and into pedestrians. Another that captures the driver struggling to regain control of the car after the system prompts him to take over. What would appear to be the first crash involving FSD was reported to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in November last year; no one was injured, but the vehicle was “severely damaged”.

Tesla boss Elon Musk has promised the arrival of self-driving cars several times over the years.
Tesla boss Elon Musk has promised the arrival of self-driving cars several times over the years. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

FSD is proficient at driving on motorways, where it’s “straightforward, literally”, says Taylor Ogan, a Tesla FSD owner and chief executive of Snow Bull Capital. On more complex, inner-city streets, he says the system is more unpredictable. Continuous software updates are supposed to iron out glitches. For example, the NHTSA forced Tesla to prevent the system from executing illegal “rolling stops” (moving slowly through a stop sign without ever coming to a full stop, while an “unexpected braking” problem is the subject of a current inquiry. In Ogan’s experience of trialling FSD though, “I haven’t even seen it get better. It just does crazier things more confidently.”

Maynard says the “learner driver” metaphor holds for some of FSD’s issues, but falls apart when the technology engages in indisputably non-human behaviour. For example, a lack of regard for getting dangerously close to pedestrians and the time a Tesla ploughed into a bollard that FSD failed to register. Similar problems have emerged with Tesla’s Autopilot software, which has been implicated in at least 12 accidents (with one death and 17 injuries) owing to the cars being unable to “see” parked emergency vehicles.

There’s reason to believe that the videos that make their way online are some of the more flattering ones. Not only are the testers Tesla customers, but an army of super-fans acts as an extra deterrent to sharing anything negative. Any reports of FSD behaving badly can trigger a wave of outrage; any critical posts on the Tesla Motors Club, a forum for Tesla drivers, are inevitably greeted by people blaming users for accidents or accusing them of wanting Tesla to fail. “People are terrified that Elon Musk will take away the FSD that they paid for and that people will attack them,” says Ogan.

This helps to shield Tesla from criticism, says Ed Niedermeyer, the author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, who was “bombarded by an online militia” when he started reporting on the company. “Throughout Tesla’s history, this faith and sense of community… has been absolutely critical to Tesla’s survival,” he says. The proof, he adds, is that Musk can claim again and again to be a year from reaching full autonomous driving without losing the trust of fans.

But it’s not just Tesla that has missed self-imposed autonomous driving deadlines. Cruise, Waymo, Toyota and Honda all said they would launch fully self-driving cars by 2020. Progress has been made, but not on the scale anticipated. What happened?

“Number one is that this stuff is harder than manufacturers realised,” says Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research. While about 80% of self-driving is relatively simple – making the car follow the line of the road, stick to a certain side, avoid crashing – the next 10% involves more difficult situations such as roundabouts and complex junctions. “The last 10% is really difficult,” says Avery. “That’s when you’ve got, you know, a cow standing in the middle of the road that doesn’t want to move.”

It’s the last 20% that the AV industry is stuck on, especially the final 10%, which covers the devilish problem of “edge cases”. These are rare and unusual events that occur on the road such as a ball bouncing across the street followed by a running child; complicated roadworks that require the car to mount the kerb to get past; a group of protesters wielding signs. Or that obstinate cow.

Self-driving cars rely on a combination of basic coded rules such as “always stop at a red light” and machine-learning software. The machine-learning algorithms imbibe masses of data in order to “learn” to drive proficiently. Because edge cases only rarely appear in such data, the car doesn’t learn how to respond appropriately.

An Uber self-driving car at its Pittsburgh technology centre in 2016.
An Uber self-driving car at its Pittsburgh technology centre in 2016. Photograph: Angelo Merendino/Getty

The thing about edge cases is that they are not all that rare. “They might be infrequent for an individual driver, [but] if you average out over all the drivers in the world, these kinds of edge cases are happening very frequently to somebody,” says Melanie Mitchell, computer scientist and professor of complexity at the Santa Fe Institute.

While humans are able to generalise from one scenario to the next, if a self-driving system appears to “master” a certain situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be able to replicate this under slightly different circumstances. It’s a problem that so far has no answer. “It’s a challenge to try to give AI systems common sense, because we don’t even know how it works in ourselves,” says Mitchell.

Musk himself has alluded to this: “A major part of real-world AI has to be solved to make unsupervised, generalised full self-driving work,” he tweeted in 2019. Failing a breakthrough in AI, autonomous vehicles that function on a par with humans probably won’t be coming to market just yet. Other AV makers use high-definition maps – charting the lines of roads and pavements, placement of traffic signs and speed limits – to partly get around this problem. But these maps need to be constantly refreshed to keep up with ever-changing conditions on roads and, even then, unpredictability remains.

The edge-case problem is compounded by AV technology that acts “supremely confidently” when it’s wrong, says Philip Koopman, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s really bad at knowing when it doesn’t know.” The perils of this are evident in analysing the Uber crash in which a prototype AV killed Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bicycle across a road in Arizona, in 2018. An interview with the safety operator behind the wheel at the time describes the software flipping between different classifications of Herzberg’s form – “vehicle”, “bicycle”, “other” – until 0.2 seconds before the crash.

The ultimate aim of AV makers is to create cars that are safer than human-driven vehicles. In the US, there is about one death for every 100m miles driven by a human (including drunk driving). Koopman says AV makers would have to beat this to prove their technology was safer than a human. But he also believes somewhat comparable metrics used by the industry, such as disengagement data (how often a human needs to take control to prevent an accident), elide the most important issues in AV safety.

“Safety isn’t about working right most of the time. Safety is all about the rare case where it doesn’t work properly,” says Koopman. “It has to work 99.999999999% of the time. AV companies are still working on the first few nines, with a bunch more nines to go. For every nine, it’s 10 times harder to achieve.”

Some experts believe AV makers won’t have to completely crack human-level intelligence to roll out self-driving vehicles. “I think if every car was a self-driving car, and the roads were all mapped perfectly, and there were no pedestrians around, then self-driving cars would be very reliable and trustworthy,” says Mitchell. “It’s just that there’s this whole ecosystem of humans and other cars driven by humans that AI just doesn’t have the intelligence yet to deal with.”

Cruise Origin founder Kyle Vogt at the company’s launch.
Cruise Origin founder Kyle Vogt at the company’s launch. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

Under the right conditions, such as quiet roads and favourable weather, self-driving cars can mostly function well. This is how Waymo is able to run a limited robotaxi service in parts of Phoenix, Arizona. However, this fleet has still been involved in minor accidents and one vehicle was repeatedly stumped by a set of traffic cones despite a remote worker providing assistance. (A Waymo executive claimed they were not aware of these incidents happening more than with a human driver.)

Despite the challenges, the AV industry is speeding ahead. The Uber crash had a temporarily sobering effect; manufacturers suspended trials afterwards owing to negative press and Arizona’s governor suspended Uber’s testing permit. Uber and another ride-hailing company, Lyft, both then sold their self-driving divisions.

But this year has marked a return to hubris – with more than $100bn invested in the past 10 years, the industry can hardly afford to shirk. Carmakers General Motors and Geely and AV company Mobileye have said people may be able to buy self-driving cars as early as 2024. Cruise and Waymo both aim to launch commercial robotaxi operations in San Francisco this year. Aurora also plans to deploy fully autonomous vehicles in the US within the next two to three years.

Some safety experts are concerned by the lack of regulation governing this bold next step. At present, every company “basically gets one free crash”, says Koopman, adding that the regulatory system in the US is predicated on trust in the AV maker until a serious accident occurs. He points to Uber and AV startup, whose driverless test permit was recently suspended in California after a serious collision involving one of its vehicles.

A side-effect of Tesla sharing its technology with customers is that regulators are taking notice. Tesla has so far avoided the more stringent requirements of other AV makers, such as reporting crashes and systems failures and using trained safety professionals as testers, because of the claim that its systems are more basic. But California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the state’s autonomous driving regulator, is considering changing the system, in part because of the dangerous-looking videos of the technology in action, as well as investigations into Tesla by the NHTSA.

The dearth of regulation so far highlights the lack of global consensus in this space. The question, says Maynard, is “is the software going to mature fast enough that it gets to the point where it’s both trusted and regulators give it the green light, before something really bad happens and pulls the rug out from the whole enterprise?”

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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.

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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.

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Aviation and Telecom Industries Reach Compromise on 5G Deployment

The Voice Of EU | In a significant development, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the United States, have agreed to delay the deployment of 5G services following requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration. This decision marks a crucial compromise in the long-standing dispute between the two industries, which had raised concerns over the potential interference of 5G with flight signals.
The aviation industry, led by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, had been vocal about the risks of 5G deployment, citing concerns over the safety of flight operations. Kirby had urged AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans, warning that proceeding with the deployment would be a “catastrophic failure of government.” The US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue further highlighted the need for a solution.
In response, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sent a letter to the mobile networks, requesting a two-week delay to reassess the potential risks. Initially, AT&T and Verizon were hesitant, citing the aviation industry’s two-year preparation window. However, they eventually agreed to the short delay, pushing the deployment to January 19.
The crux of the issue lies in the potential interference between 5G signals and flight equipment, particularly radar altimeters. The C-Band spectrum used by 5G networks is close to the frequencies employed by these critical safety devices. The FAA requires accurate and reliable radar altimeters to ensure safe flight operations.

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Despite the concerns, both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree that 5G mobile networks and airline travel can coexist safely. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines operate regularly. The key lies in reducing power levels around airports and fostering cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment.
The FAA has been working to find a solution in the United States, and the additional two-week delay will allow for further assessment and preparation. AT&T and Verizon have also agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months, similar to restrictions imposed in France.
President Joe Biden hailed the decision to delay as “a significant step in the right direction.” The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and South Korea have also reported no unsafe interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in their regions.
As the aviation and telecom industries continue to work together, it is clear that safe coexistence is possible. The delay in 5G deployment is a crucial step towards finding a solution that prioritizes both safety and innovation. With ongoing collaboration and technical assessments, the United States can join the growing list of countries where 5G and airlines coexist without issue.

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