The Merger of Tech & Auto
The boundary between the tech and auto worlds is quickly being blurred, evidenced in recent progresses of tech companies with their auto “hobbies” and vice-versa.
Back in June, Baidu, the largest search engine in China, announced that it intended to put autonomous cars on the road by end of 2015, with the help of German partner and luxury carmaker, BMW. In a press release released last month, the company announced that a modified BMW 3-Series vehicle had completed a self-driven test in Beijing with success. It was, apparently, the first time a fully autonomous car managed to pass a series to tests in “mixed” and “complex” road conditions of China. (Whatever does that mean? Congestion? Potholes? Inundated with bicycles?)
The test route was 18.6 miles long, and included merging into the highway and U-turns; the Baidu car executed common driving manoeuvres like turning left, turning right, decelerating when it detected slower traffic ahead, changing lanes, overtaking cars and merging into traffic. The test peaked at 62mph, making the Baidu car a speed demon compared to the Google car which, under Californian law, is only allowed to operate on roads with speed limits of 35mph or slower – Google limits its cars to 25mph. The laxer speed limit (if there is even one at all) certainly gives Baidu the upper hand in testing the car’s capabilities in a more realistic gamut of driving conditions.
In the USA, Tesla is making progress on its own autonomous technology. On Saturday, the company updated the software for Model S and Model X to version 7.1, which includes a new Summon feature. With just a touch of a button on the key fob, Summon guides the Model S to park or leave a parking space/garage, all by itself. This has spawned videos by owners showing off the new feature. Here’s one, if this is your sort of car porn:
It shouldn’t be long before this feature can be used to guide the car to hook up with Tesla’s robotic charging arm, making parking and charging an easy one-button move.
Even Apple wants a bite of the action. The rumour mill started grinding when MacRumors noticed that the tech giant had registered three new domain names – all related to the auto industry. apple.car,apple.cars and apple.auto now belong to the company, and will lie dormant until the yet-to-be-announced Apple car is ready for its grand reveal.
While we’re not that surprised with this piece of news – Apple’s recent hiring pattern had indicated as much – we were just as surprised as everyone else to hear that Facebook had registered Facebook.car, Facebook.cars and Facebook.Auto. And on the same day as Apple too. Are these two tech giants in cahoots and what are they up to?
Ride-sharing companies are also racing to create autonomous cars. About a year ago, Uber announced that it was working with Carnegie Mellon University to develop its own self-driving car, but the controversial but hugely successful transportation company subsequently poached a number of the University’s robotics labs’ personnel. Last week, Uber’s American rival, Lyft, announced that it was partnering with General Motors to create a fleet of self-driving cars which can do the same job as Lyft’s drivers. This may be the future of human mobility, but good luck getting the car to respond to “Step on it!” when you’re late for a flight.