Automation

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Voyage gets the green light to bring robotaxi service to California’s public roads

Voyage has cleared a regulatory hurdle that will allow the company to expand its self-driving service from the private roads of a retirement community in San Jose, Calif. to public roads throughout the rest of the state.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a permit Monday that gives Voyage permission to transport passengers in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads. The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Voyage in a new and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing. Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Pony.ai, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program.

The permit also puts Voyage on a path toward broader commercialization.

The company was operating six autonomous vehicles — always with a human safety driver behind the wheel — in The Villages, a community of more than 4,000 residents in San Jose, Calif. (Those activities have been suspended temporarily under a statewide stay-at-home order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Voyage also operates in a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in central Florida.

Voyage didn’t need a CPUC permit because the community is made up of private roads, although CEO Oliver Cameron said the company wanted to adhere to state rules regardless of any technicalities. Voyage was also motivated by a grander ambition to transport residents of The Villages to destinations outside of the community.

“We want to bring people to all the things that live outside The Villages, facilities like hospitals and grocery stores,” Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron told TechCrunch in an interview Monday.

Voyage’s strategy was to start with retirement communities — places with specific customer demand and a simpler surrounding environment. The demographic that Voyage serves has an average age of 70. The aim isn’t to change its customer base. Instead, Cameron wants to expand the company’s current operational design domain to give Voyage a bigger reach.

The end goal is for Voyage’s core customers — people Cameron dubs power users — to be able to use the service for everything from heading to a neighbor’s house for dinner to shopping, doctor’s visits and even the airport.

🚨 Announcement time! We recently received a CPUC permit granting permission to move CA residents in driverless cars.

We join a tiny group of companies with this permit (👋@zoox @Cruise @Waymo @aurora_inno) & can’t wait to get back on the road to serve seniors. We miss you ❤pic.twitter.com/VBPtNQjRI1

— Voyage (@voyage) April 20, 2020

The CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The first one, called the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot would allow driverless passenger service — although no company has yet to obtain that permit.

Under the permit, Voyage can’t charge for rides. However, there might be some legal wiggle room. Voyage can technically charge for rides within The Villages; in fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown, the company had started charging for a ride-hailing service.

Rides outside of The Villages would have to be free, although it’s unclear if the company could charge for mileage or time until the vehicle left the community.

Voyage has aspirations to take this further. The company is also applying for a traditional Transportation Charter Permit, which is required for limousine, bus and other third-party charter services. Cameron said the company had to go through the stringent application process for the CPUC’s Drivered AV permit first.

The CPUC programs shouldn’t be confused with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads — always with a safety driver. There are 65 companies that hold autonomous vehicle testing permits issued by the DMV. Companies that want to participate in the CPUC program must have a testing permit with the DMV.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says labor should not fear automation

It’s impossible to discuss the seismic shift toward automation without a conversation about job loss. Opponent of these technologies criticize a displacement that could some day result wide scale unemployment among what is often considered “unskilled” roles. Advocates, meanwhile, tend to suggest that reports of that nature tend to be overstated. Workforces shift, as they have done for time time immemorial.

During a conversation at SXSW this week, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered another take entirely.

“We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work,” she said in an answer reported by The Verge. “We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”

The response to an audience member’s question is a take that doesn’t too often get repeated in broader conversations about automation. Often times industry spokespeople will discuss technology’s potential to replace jobs that are deemed “dull, dirty and dangerous” — menial tasks that many roboticists will suggest no one really wants in the first place.

This just such a shockingly intelligent thing for any politician to say. https://t.co/QcRJNW12g6

— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) March 10, 2019

Ocasio-Cortez’s answer, on the other other hand, speaks to a viewpoint more in-line with her own Democratic Socialist views. It’s a suggestion that, if harnessed correctly, such technologies could one day liberate workers from a capitalist system where being a worker is inexorably tied to one’s identity and livelihood.

The newly elected Congresswoman elaborated on her position by pointing out the benefits that automation could bring to a society.

“We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in,” The Verge quoted Ocasio-Cortez as saying. “Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.”

And Ocasio-Cortez cited Bill Gates’ suggestion (first floated in a presentation on Quartz) that a robot tax might be a way to make that vision real. “What [Gates is] really talking about is taxing corporations,” she reportedly said. “But it’s easier to say: ‘tax a robot.’”

Her response to the automation question has met with applause from some writers who have been notably prescient about the future.

“This [is] just such a shockingly intelligent thing for any politician to say,” novelist William Gibson said via tweet. It is, at very least, a fresh perspective on a well-trod topic and the kind of outlook that could breath some life in a vital conversation about our collective technological future.

Automation will have an unquestionably profound impact on jobs in the coming decades — we’ve already seen much of that already, for roles in places like warehouses. Every study on the subject acknowledges this, with jobs “destroyed” number in the tens of millions and above, while jobs “created” are often times a fraction of that massive number.

The congresswoman’s comments, however, suggest that, independent of those numbers, perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong the question all along.

Postmates reveals its cute, automated delivery robot

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Meet Serve.

Serve is Postmates’ new automated delivery robot, developed to help make the company’s on-demand deliveries more efficient.

It’ll ride along sidewalks and can carry up to 50 lbs, traveling 25 miles on a single charge. There’s dynamic lighting in the eyes and a light ring up top to indicate movement, while customers can interact with Serve using a touchscreen and cameras mounted on top of the robot. 

Serve will launch first in the Los Angeles area, and will gradually rollout to the other U.S. cities its over the next 12 months.  Read more…

More about Tech, Postmates, Automation, Delivery Robots, and Tech

Waymo orders thousands of Pacificas for 2018 self-driving fleet rollout

 Waymo has ordered thousands of new Chrysler Pacifica minivans from FCA to help populate its autonomous ride-hailing fleet, which it will open to the public in 2018, the company says. The public launch of its Pacifica-based self-driving ride hailing service is set to occur sometime later this year, after Waymo starts testing its minivans without anyone behind the wheel, achieving true Level… Read More

Lyft gets approval to test self-driving cars on public roads in California

 Lyft is the latest company to be added to the ever-growing list of those permitted to test their self-driving technology on California state public roads. The California Department of Motor Vehicles added Lyft to the list recently (via Axios), following Lyft’s foundation of a self-driving technology development center earlier this year, and its announcement that it would work on both its… Read More

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Watch Cruise’s self-driving Bolt EV navigate smoothly to SF’s Dolores Park

self-dirving-cruise GM-owned Cruise Automation wants you to be able to see the progress it’s making with its self-driving car tests, in a way that’s more tangible than looking at boring lists of disengagement reports. That’s why it’s been publishing videos of its Cruise test cars navigating real city streets, and a new episode of that video series is available now, showing a Bolt EV… Read More

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Marketing and investment firm Wareness expands beyond hardware

Wareness team It’s been about three years since PR firm VSC launched Wareness, a “studio” within the larger organization that provides consulting services and seed funding to hardware startups. Since then, Wareness has backed 14 companies. The next step? Looking beyond hardware — founder and CEO Vijay Chattha told me that the studio is now looking to work with startups in… Read More

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