Uber unveils next-generation Volvo self-driving car

An Uber self-driving Volvo on exhibit at the Uber Elevate Summit 2019 in Washington, DC on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 13 June 2019
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Uber unveils next-generation Volvo self-driving car

  • The new vehicle has several backup systems for both steering and braking functions
  • Carmakers have struggled to maintain profit margins faced with the rising costs of making electric, connected and autonomous cars

WASHINGTON: Uber Technologies unveiled its newest Volvo self-driving car in Washington on Wednesday as it works to eventually deploy vehicles without drivers under some limited conditions.
Uber said the new production XC90 will be assembled by Volvo Cars in Sweden and have human controls like steering wheels and brake pedals, but also with factory-installed steering and braking systems designed for computer rather than human control.
Uber Advanced Technologies Group chief scientist Raquel Urtasun showed off the company’s artificial intelligence technology that allows it to drive autonomously for long distances on highways without maps and “on the fly” to plot its course and navigate construction zones.
“Our goal is get each one of you to where you want to go much better, much safer, cheaper,” Urtasun said.
As the race to push out autonomous cars across the globe heats up, other companies are also working to deploy self-driving vehicles in limited areas.
Ford Motor Co’s majority-owned autonomous vehicle unit, Argo AI, launched its new fleet of self-driving test vehicles — Ford Fusion Hybrid — in Detroit on Wednesday, expanding to five US cities.
The No. 2 US automaker also opened a research center in Tel Aviv, joining a growing number of major automakers and suppliers setting up shop in Israel’s tech hub.
General Motors Co. in January 2018 sought permission from US regulators to deploy a ride-sharing fleet of driverless cars without steering wheels or other human controls before the end of 2019, but is still struggling to win regulatory approval.
Alphabet Inc’s Waymo unit is operating a robotaxi service in Arizona and said last month it is partnering with Lyft Inc. to serve more riders.
South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. both said they would invest in the self-driving car software startup Aurora and speed up development of their respective autonomous vehicle technologies.
Carmakers have struggled to maintain profit margins faced with the rising costs of making electric, connected and autonomous cars. As a result, they are setting up alliances and lining up outside investors to combat spiraling development costs.
Previously, Uber had purchased about 250 Volvo XC90 SUVs and retrofitted them for self-driving use.
The new vehicles — known by the internal code number 519G and under development for several years — are safer, more reliable and will replace the older vehicles in Uber’s fleet “soon,” according to Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.
“This is about going to production,” Meyhofer said in an interview at an Uber conference in Washington on Tuesday.
The new vehicle also has several backup systems for both steering and braking functions as well as backup battery power and new cybersecurity systems.
Uber is not ready to deploy vehicles without human controls, Meyhofer said.
“We’re still in a real hybrid state,” he said. “We have to get there and we’re not going to get to thousands of cars in a city overnight. It’s going to be a slower introduction.”
The new XC90 vehicles have an interior fish-eye camera to scan for lost items, Uber said. They also do not have sunroofs since the self-driving vehicles have large sensors on the roof and are equipped with auto-close doors to prevent an unsafe departure.
Uber, which has taken delivery of about a dozen prototypes of the new vehicle, but has not yet deployed them on public roads, said the car’s “self-driving system will one day allow for safe, reliable autonomous ridesharing without the need” for a safety driver.
Asked if Uber will deploy self-driving cars without safety drivers in limited areas in the next few years, Meyhofer said: “Yes — way before that.”
But he added that Uber wants to be in “the good graces of public trust and regulatory trust” before making the business decision to deploy.
In December, Uber resumed limited self-driving car testing on public roads in Pittsburgh, nine months after it suspended the program following a deadly accident in Arizona.
In March 2018, authorities in Arizona suspended Uber’s ability to test its self-driving cars after one of its XC90 cars hit and killed a woman crossing the street at night in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, then Uber’s largest testing hub. The crash was the first death attributed to a self-driving vehicle.
In March 2019, prosecutors in Arizona said the company was not criminally liable in the crash and would not pursue charges. Uber has since ended testing in Arizona, but plans to eventually resume testing in Toronto and San Francisco, Meyhofer said.
The death prompted significant safety concerns about the nascent self-driving car industry, which is racing to get vehicles into commercial use.
Volvo Cars Chief Executive Hakan Samuelsson said in a statement that “by the middle of the next decade, we expect one-third of all cars we sell to be fully autonomous.”
Volvo Cars, which is owned by China’s Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd, will use a similar autonomous base vehicle concept for the introduction of its first commercially available autonomous drive technology in the early 2020s.
Volvo and Uber said in 2017 that the rideshare company planned to buy up to 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo from 2019 to 2021 using the self-driving system developed by Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.
An Uber spokeswoman said Tuesday that the company plans “to work with Volvo on tens of thousands of vehicles in the future.”


Japan: G20 summit to debate trade including WTO reform

Updated 50 sec ago
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Japan: G20 summit to debate trade including WTO reform

  • Japan, which chairs this year’s G20 gatherings, will take a neutral stance in the US-China trade row
  • More ‘concrete’ discussions on trade policy will take place at the G20 Osaka summit
TOKYO: Substantial discussions on trade, including reform of the World Trade Organization, will likely take place at a summit of Group of 20 major economies next week in Osaka, a senior Japanese finance ministry official said on Wednesday.
Japan, which chairs this year’s G20 gatherings, will take a neutral stance in the US-China trade row and urge countries to resolve tensions with a multilateral framework, said Masatsugu Asakawa, vice finance minister for international affairs.
“With regard to differences (on trade) between the United States and China, Japan of course won’t take sides. We will also not take any steps that go against WTO rules,” said Asakawa, who oversaw the G20 finance leaders’ gathering earlier this month.
“Japan will continue to take a multilateral approach in promoting free trade,” he told a news conference.
China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies, are in the middle of a costly trade dispute that has pressured financial markets and damaged the world economy.
Markets are focused on whether US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping can narrow their differences when they sit down at the G20 summit.
The bitter trade war has forced the International Monetary Fund to cut its global growth forecast and overshadowed the G20 meetings that conclude with the Osaka summit on June 28-29.
At the finance leaders’ gathering, the G20 issued a communique warning that trade and geopolitical tensions have “intensified” and that policymakers stood ready to take further action against such risks.
“The macro-economic impact (of the trade tensions) is an issue of concern,” Asakawa said, conceding it took considerable time for G20 finance ministers and central bank heads to agree on their communique’s language on trade.
More “concrete” discussions on trade policy will take place at the G20 Osaka summit, he added.
The row over trade appeared to spread to currency policy when Trump criticized European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s dovish comments as aimed at weakening the euro to give the region’s exports an unfair trade advantage.
Asakawa rebuffed the view the Bank of Japan’s massive stimulus program could also provoke the ire of Trump.
He also said the G20 shared an understanding that members would accept any exchange-rate moves driven by ultra-easy monetary policies as long as the measures are not directly aimed at manipulating currencies.
“The BOJ’s ultra-easy policy is aimed at beating deflation, not at manipulating exchange rates. That’s understood widely among the G20 economies,” he said.
Fears of the widening fallout from the trade war have heightened market expectations the US Federal Reserve will start cutting interest rates this year. Draghi said on Tuesday the ECB will ease again if inflation fails to accelerate.
The dovish tone of other central banks has piled pressure on the BOJ, though many analysts expect it to keep policy steady at least at this week’s rate review.