Autonomous cars won't be on Israel's roads so quickly

Qualcomm driverless car

Israel may be a world vehicle technology power, but driverless cars face many regulatory obstacles before they'll be allowed on the country's roads.

Anyone following the auto innovations currently being unveiled at the international Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas might get the impression that Israel holds the key to what the world's leading cars in the coming decade will look like.

Dozens of Israeli auto-tech startups and the local branches of multinationals are making presentations at the exhibition in sensors, connectivity, artificial intelligence, improved quality of life in vehicles, and autonomous driving.

Mobileye, the leading Israeli company in the sector, is bringing to the exhibition an actual demonstration of autonomous transportation services, while Qualcomm announced its strategic entry into competition in the autonomous vehicle market, and that it intended to present a complete platform for autonomous vehicles, with an emphasis on robot taxis. Qualcomm did not mention Israel in this context, but its help wanted ads indicate that a respectable proportion of its development in the field will probably take place in Israel.

This is great for Israel's national pride, but the question that we ask every year is to what extent this will affect life in Israel - whether the leading position of Israeli auto-tech will improve the dismal state of transport in Israel in the coming years.

No concrete timetable

In June 2019, international consultation company KMPG published its 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI). KMPG rated various countries according to a number of indices of their readiness for an autonomous vehicle. Israel, the purported global auto-tech capital, was put in an unimpressive 14th place among the 25 rated countries. Israel was rated number one in technology, thanks largely to Mobileye and the hundreds of startups covering almost every aspect of autonomous and smart cars. However, Israel was only in ninth place in the readiness of consumers to adopt driverless cars, and a miserable 21st place in supporting infrastructure. Another poor rating was 18th in government policy and legislation.

In other words, we are good in auto-tech theory and R&D investments, and even at making pretty good money out of exporting the revolution to the global auto industry and raising investments. Israel roads, however, are far from being an ideal place for the autonomous vehicles themselves.

Legislators have made noises on the subject, but an official master document with a concrete timetable for extensive commercial operations of a driverless vehicle has been yet to be published. No organized document has outlined a framework for pilot trials of autonomous vehicles on Israel's roads, even though three companies have already received approval for conducting trials of such vehicles on public roads with supervising drivers. Meanwhile, there is no public agency other than the Ministry of Transport, which is coordinating the matter.

KMPG is not the only party to comment on the matter. In December 2019, the Knesset Research and Information Center published a study on the subject of "Israel's Policy on an Autonomous Vehicle." The authors of the study directed a query on the subject to the Ministry of Transport, which answered, "Putting autonomous vehicles on the roads will require holistic supporting regulation, not just by the Ministry of Transport, but also by other government agencies. Failure to establish supporting and advanced regulation is liable to generate obstacles that will delay the entry of advanced systems and autonomous vehicles."

The Ministry of Transport stated, "Legislative amendments were made, regulations were written, and procedures established in order to enable companies to advance from the R&D stages to trials in closed areas and on public roads… the Ministry of Transport has begun working with other regulators in order to achieve progress in the matter, and is examining leading regulations in other countries." To put this in simple language, we made an effort to close the gaps in the demand for trials at the short-term bureaucratic level, but there is no overall consideration of the matter.

The Alternative Fuels and Smart Transportation Administration was also interviewed in the Knesset study, and its response shows little light at the end of the tunnel: "The situation in Israel today, in which the procedures required of companies operating in the sector are not sufficiently clear, and future plans on regulations, trial environments, etc. are not detailed enough, is a disadvantage for Israel vis-à-vis its overseas competitors. Israeli regulation in the sector should be made more flexible. We should strive towards a transparent and open public procedure."

Flexibility and transparency? In the Ministry of Transport? If these are the basic requirements, we will probably have to wait a long time for our robot taxi.

Fairness requires stating that the delays in Israel's readiness for an unmanned vehicle, even at the level of mobility as a service (MaaS), are not merely a result of administrative and conceptual inflexibility by regulators; the general paralysis of governmental systems in the past year and the absence of a regular budget have also played a role. The result, however, is nonetheless a failure.

Market forces go into action

In the absence of initiative from above, the market forces are filling the vacuum, and are pushing for putting an unmanned vehicle on Israel's roads. In our case, these are players with economic and political power in governmental corridors, such as Intel/Mobileye.

In the next two years, an MaaS project is scheduled to go into operation on the roads in the greater Tel Aviv area. The project will have robot taxis carrying passengers on the streets of the greater Tel Aviv area, and possibly other areas later, without a supervising human driver. The recently published current timetable is for pilot services to begin in 2021, with regular commercial services starting in 2022.

The project, which bears the internal code name Pinta, has three partners: Volkswagen, which will supply the vehicles (electric minibuses, which have not yet been launched officially and commercially); Mobileye, which will supply the autonomous driving and mapping system and the regulatory framework; and Champion Motors, which is due to take care of the operational aspects, including importing, charging infrastructure, regular maintenance, etc.

Mobileye is making no secret of its main objective in the project: proving the international viability of its autonomous driving system on public roads in real conditions. This is an essential interim stage before mass commercialization of autonomous driving systems in private vehicles, which is expected to begin in the middle of the decade, and to begin making real progress by its end.

According to the company's presentations, the robot taxis have three main secondary objectives. The first is to conduct a field test, while at the same time lowering the cost of the complex autonomous system, which will be unacceptable for most purchasers of private vehicles in the early years.

Mobileye's figures show that the "Israeli" robot taxi in the Pinta project is based on two EYEQ6 chips - the next generation of chips with double the processing power of the earlier generation of the chip that was originally designed to carry out the autonomous mission according to announcements from two years ago. The price of these chips has not yet been published, but it can be assumed that it will be thousands of dollars per unit, at least in the initial stage.

The autonomous driving kit will also be equipped with 16 camera sensors, four of them fairly expensive stereoscopic sensors. As a backup, which is essential in difficult situations, such as night driving and driving in bad weather conditions (such as the recent floods in the Tel Aviv area), the kit will also have radar and laser (lidar) sensors.

In short, the system will cost thousands of dollars a set in the early years. This is far in excess of the $4,000 target for a mass-produced autonomous set that private customers will consider buying as part of the vehicle price. The cost will also include building and maintaining a center for real-time supervision, cybersecurity, a fleet management system, passenger entertainment and information services, a high-speed charging system, and more.

The question arises of whether, given the heavy cost, robot taxi service in the Tel Aviv area, and elsewhere, are economically worthwhile, especially given the fact that they will have to contend with subsidized and controlled costs of ordinary taxis. Judging by Mobileye's presentations, the main saving will come from elimination of the biggest cost in smart transportation services - human drivers - and from optimization of transportation.

The second sub-objective of the project is to take advantage of the high-resolution mapping capabilities, which will be restricted to given areas, at least in the first stage. In other words, pending an unlimited global mapping base, it will be easier to move with an autonomous vehicle on established, known, and well-mapped routes, for example regular routes of robot taxis in Tel Aviv.

The regulators are unwilling to take the risk

The third sub-objective, which involves the regulators, is the establishment of regulatory and proof-of-safety infrastructure for a driverless vehicle in Israel. This may be the most important concealed reason why a small country like Israel was selected for this strategic pilot.

Up until now, regulation has been a major stumbling block for the autonomous vehicle everywhere in the world, especially in the EU, North America, and Asia. Despite years of discussions in government institutions and heavy pressure from lobbies, no Western regulator has been willing to dive into the cold and deep water by formulating a legal framework for assigning responsibility in the event of an accident involving a driverless vehicle. The US Congress has been treading water for almost four years in this matter.

Mobileye has been trying for two years to promote an algorithm designed to establish the limits of liability for the autonomous vehicle in common driving situations, and to give the autonomous vehicle, its manufacturers, and its users a kind of legal immunity in the event of an accident. Israel is likely to be the first country to assimilate the system into its regulation, and this is likely to be a breakthrough that will justify the project, even if it does not make a profit.

Considering the weight of Mobileye and Intel in the Israeli economy, and their ability to open doors, we would not rule out in advance the possibility of the model becoming binding regulation. Even in this situation, it will be necessary to give the right-of-way to unmanned vehicles; otherwise, these vehicles will be trapped in the city's traffic jams, and will have difficulty reaching the customers, with or without a driver. The high-speed lanes that the Ministry of Transport is trying to promote show that opposition can be anticipated, not to mention the questionable driving culture and political pressure from tax drivers, for example.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 9, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Qualcomm driverless car
Qualcomm driverless car
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