Vehicle Autonomy

Why we’re unlikely to see it in the Caribbean anytime soon

I’ve had a bit of eye strain recently, and decided to rest my eyes a little which is why this email comes out only now. Appointment with eye doctor duly booked!

On to the article.

As the victim of a pretty violent road traffic accident earlier this year — one that could easily have killed us — I am very attentive to road security and the way that technology improves it. The world of autonomous vehicles fits squarely with that and the theme of this newsletter: digital technologies and their impact on lives and business.

Today’s title gives the conclusion away far too early, but I thought it worth writing an issue on the subject.

What is vehicle autonomy? It’s complicated

When we talk about humans, often related to the subject of children or those with handicaps, autonomy is a relatively simple concept to assess; can my son wake up and then go for a shower without any other intervention (I’ll not talk about the teenage years that seem to affect autonomous capacity severely 🤷‍♂️), or can a physically impaired person live and work autonomously such that it affords them freedom to control meaningful outcomes.

When we discuss autonomous vehicles, we’re talking about a much simpler autonomy. Tell the car where we’d like to go then start the engine. Very simple, nothing at all like the scale of processing required for a human to be autonomous, yet it seems like science fiction currently.

At the start of the year, CES in Las Vegas has become an institution for technology enthusiasts to glimpse “the future”. Much of what is on-show is pure fantasy and at best, half-baked prototypes putting on the glams to get funded into reality. Notwithstanding, one such demo that was highly entertaining, if still a little too scripted for my liking, was the Yandex autonomous car driving on real roads, in real traffic. It shuttled real passengers around the Strip expertly. This video shows it better than I could explain.

You’ve no doubt noticed the safety driver in the passenger seat and the big red panic button, but it was, nonetheless very impressive.

The 5 Levels of Autonomy

You’ve no doubt noticed the safety driver in the passenger seat and the big red panic button near the hand, but it was nonetheless quite impressive.

The 5 Levels of Autonomy

In 2013, the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defined what has subsequently become accepted as the definitive list of vehicle autonomy levels. It ranges from 0 (none) to 5 (full autonomy).

Level 0: This one is simple, and it is virtually every vehicle produced and sold since Henry Ford’s Model T first rolled off his now infamous production line. The car controls nothing, nothing! The engine, brakes, steering, gears and all the accessories like lights and indicators are all human-driven, decided and executed.

Level 1: Level 1 is described best as driver-assistance. Some functions, such as breaking, speed regulation, are controlled under supervision by the bag of meat in the driver's seat: nothing fancy, just a few helpful gadgets to make life on the highway a little more bearable.

Level 2: At this level, at least one driver-assist system controls the experience. It could be acceleration or breaking. However, the critical aspect is that the car makes the decision based upon its understanding and awareness of its environment. The driver is “disengaged” from operating the vehicle, using the NHTSA terminology. If you’ve used lane-assist in a car, this is what Level 2 autonomy is.

Level 3: This is the level at which responsibility for safety rests in the hands of the vehicle and not the human, but only under certain circumstances. The driver must remain aware and capable of capturing full control at a moments notice. This level is what the latest Tesla cars can do on major highways in the US. Many people believe we are likely to skip this step, precisely because this blurring of responsibility between human and machine is already creating more problems than it solves, and judging by the YouTube videos I saw researching this article, that’s not unreasonable!

Level 4: Level 4 is, for all intents and purposes, fully autonomous, in that the vehicle can fully control the trip from start to finish with no human intervention. Under the level 4 definition, however, it is limited to full autonomy under the ODD, the Operational Design Domain. It refers to the fact that in some situations, the vehicle fails in autonomy when operated outside those parameters — for example, driving in a massive snowstorm or rain deluge. This issue becomes important when we look at the situation in the Caribbean.

Level 5: If the vehicle is indistinguishable from, or better than, human drivers, then Level 5 is attained. The vehicle becomes Driverless. Note that Autonomous is now Driverless!

What are the problems for the Caribbean?

Sadly for us here in the Caribbean, the reality is that too many issues exist on our roads for autonomy to be a significant prospect for the foreseeable future. A few examples serve to highlight this.

Take, for example, the weather. Blessed as we are with all-year-round sunshine and warmth, we are bathed with heavy rain (seemingly from nowhere at times), that often floods roads within minutes. For you, the human, much information is inputted and processed; you intrinsically understand the flooding of the road and slowing down is necessary to avert an accident. You see the rain, you know it’s raining. You know the road, you can no longer see the tarmac or concrete, you see lots of water.

LIDAR and other technologies currently in autonomous vehicles are sadly lacking in this perception and intelligence.

I was lucky enough to have a VW Golf for a couple of years that featured lane-assist, but our islands are small, and our roads are even smaller. The technology just wasn’t built for those scenarios. Few are the multi-lane straight-lined highways that allow this technology to work well. Our roads twist and turn, undulating more like the opening sequence to Ridge Racer than the perfect Autobahnen of Germany, forcing operation outside the ODD, resulting in the disabling of the feature after a few hundred metres or so, of poorly lined tarmac.

The technology is coming, but it takes a long time before becoming useful in the Caribbean and universally. Getting the technology to Level 4 in Los Angeles is a very different prospect than getting it to Level 4 in Dominica!

Paypal is no longer pals with Libra

Paypal, one of the 28 founding members of the association pledging $10 million in investment, have announced they are walking away from the project after much backlash had been felt around the globe. In France and Germany, governments have openly stated that Libra would be forbidden in those territories as it is seen as a threat to sovereignty.

I’ll keep beating the drum, it’s annoying I know, but Cryptocurrencies are condemned to remain as a reasonably anonymous (although not 100%) way for you buying your drugs and other illicit goods. Unless they legitimise themselves and are governed and regulated, and most importantly, protected by laws in each state in which they operate, they will remain marginal in both senses of the word. From Blockchain ≠ Cryptocurrency:

I’m an on-the-record sceptic of Bitcoin and other Cryptocurrencies, and so far, nothing I’ve seen has led me to believe differently. They are almost all, a waste of money. They are all, without exception, a huge waste of energy in a time when economising energy should be a priority not just for governments but individuals alike, and at the very worst end of the scale, some are downright fraudulent. That being said, the underlying technology of these currencies is actually quite interesting and has place for use in Digital Transformation

Visa, MasterCard and Stripe are all said to be getting cold feet and are feeling the adverse effects of being associated with Facebook, and it is only a matter of time before they pull the plug too. However, Paypal’s decision also has business strategy wrapped up in it.

Paypal is the owner of Venmo, a digital wallet-type app and a whole ecosystem of payment tools that would, it seems, compete with Calibra, the Libra-based wallet. I’m guessing Paypal took stock of the risk (being linked to Facebook’s negativity) and the potential for being squeezed (see Stories, a shameful ripoff from Snapchat, designed to elevate Instagram at the expense of Snap that worked incredibly well) and said that it just isn’t worth it.

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