DAC: Self-driving Cars

DAC: Self-driving Cars
by Paul McLellan on 06-10-2015 at 7:00 am

 The keynote on Tuesday at DAC was by Jeffrey Owens of Delphi. For those of you that don’t know, Delphi used to be the part of General Motors dealing with electronics spun out from GM as a separate company in 1999.

Jeffrey pointed out that a modern automobile is the most complex device any of us own, with over 100M lines of code (loc) compared to 70M for Facebook and 12M for Android. A lot of his presentation was about general trends in automotive electronics but the most interesting was towards the end when he finished with talking about the Audi/Delphi self-driving car that recently drove from San Francisco to New York across the entire US. They learned a lot such as the cameras had problems at sunrise when the sun was very low in the sky (I have the same problem driving down 101 when the cameras in my head known as eyes always get blinded at the curve in Redwood City). Road markings differ a lot from state to state but it is necessary to understand them to keep in the correct lanes. The radar they used works fine in tunnels and in the biggest nightmare, crossing old metal bridges with reflecting surfaces everywhere (think of the old cantilever section of the Bay Bridge, for example).

Google’s self-driving cars get a lot of press but Jeffrey pointed out something that they had done with Audi which was to make much of the electronics vanish into the vehicle. There is no Lidar on the roof, in particular. Delphi assumes that would be completely unacceptable from an aesthetic point of view to any OEM (that’s what vehicle manufacturers such as Audi are called in the automotive world, companies like Delphi being known as Tier 1 suppliers). If the mythical soccer mom can veto a car because there are not enough cup-holders for the back seat then she can probably veto a car for having an ugly spinning thing on the roof.

Jefferey said that the car did 99% of the driving autonomously. But as the Wired magazine article on the trip says:Nine days after leaving San Francisco, a blue car packed with tech from a company you’ve probably never heard of rolled into New York City after crossing 15 states and 3,400 miles to make history. The car did 99 percent of the driving on its own, yielding to the carbon-based life form behind the wheel only when it was time to leave the highway and hit city streets.

So the car did all the highway driving autonomously but it couldn’t drive on city streets since they hadn’t done all the detailed mapping information that the Google car, for example, uses to make it possible to handle towns and neighborhoods.

On the show floor I talked to Matt Lewis, also of Delphi, who was one of the engineers that had worked on the cross-country Audi. The picture at the top is the car on the DAC show floor, which is the actual vehicle that drove across the country. As Matt said, “we cleaned it up a bit, it had a lot of bugs on by the end.”

Jeffrey had challenged us to find the sensors since they are not that obvious. Indeed, compared to the Google car they are well camouflaged. Behind plastic panels the radar is out of sight (plastic is transparent to radar). In the centre of the front grille there is Lidar (laser radar). There are cameras behind the mirror on the top of the windshield where they have a good view. Also rear-facing cameras too. Matt pointed out that the radar is standard Delphi radar already shipping in millions of units, as are most of the cameras. So while this is obviously not a production car it is close to a prototype.

See also the Wired magazine article This is Big: a Robo-car Just Drove Across the Country