From interesting to downright scary

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

Your job could morph into a video game.

An outfit named Starsky Robotics recently jumped into the growing field of autonomous truck developers. They join Daimler, Paccar, Volvo, Otto (now owned by Uber), and Embark, which is a newcomer itself. We’ll come back to Embark.

Starsky is a bit edgier than the rest of them.

Starsky Robotics hopes to do more than the others and for less money. Like Otto, Starsky plans to market retrofit systems. In February, Embark claims it made a 140-mile haul, 120 miles of it without a driver at the wheel. But highway driving is the easy part. Everybody is doing that.

So here’s the video game part. Starsky has taken on a piece of the autonomous truck challenge others have yet to address. Starsky’s working on a way to get autonomous trucks from the interstate to sites on local roads – what is called the “last mile.” For that part of the trip, there is no driver in the Starsky truck, but it isn’t driverless.

The driver is in another location, probably with a joystick and surrounded by computer monitors. He or she drives the truck the way ground crews pilot combat drones, much like a video game.

“We’re focusing on long-haul, distribution center to distribution center jobs. Remote driver gets the truck onto the highway, truck drives itself on the highway, then a remote driver pilots the truck from the highway to the final DC,” Starsky CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher told Land Line via email.

Starsky sets itself apart from the crowd in another way. Starsky’s steering control apparatus attaches to the steering wheel. Their brake and accelerator actuators are in a mechanical device that presses down on the pedals like real feet.

“We aren’t compromising trucks’ existing systems by hacking into them,” Seltz-Axmacher said in a recent blog post. “Our system physically pushes the pedals, turns the steering wheel, and changes gear.”

Seltz-Axmacher claims the “physical controls of the truck don’t hinder the capacity of our safety drivers to take control.”

How does a driver take control on short notice if he/she has to get all that hardware out of the way first? Seltz-Axmacher did not respond to an email asking that question.

But in an earlier email he did say Starsky Robotics is backed and advised by the founders of Access America Transport, a very big logistics outfit that is now part of Coyote Logistics, an even bigger logistics outfit.

Oh yeah, back to Embark. Like Starsky Robotics, Embark is another Silicon Valley venture capital startup. Embark isn’t talking about driver-assisted autonomous trucks like the other guys. Embark wants to get rid of drivers wherever possible. Driverless is the autonomous truck option that makes the most economic sense, they say. They’re probably the only autonomous truck developer that’s really telling the truth.

For now, their focus is on highway line hauls. More local applications will presumably come later.

Meanwhile, we apparently have quite a way to go before Americans will be comfortable with driverless vehicles.

In February, U.S. Representative Gregg Harper, R-Miss., asked a question that caught the attention of a Washington Post reporter. Mike Abelson, vice president of strategy for General Motors, was the witness at a subcommittee hearing when Rep. Harper wanted to know what to expect when he encounters a self-driving car while in his own car.

“If I honk my horn, will it do any good?” he asked.

According to the Post, Abelson didn’t have an answer.

Now for some news from

the Spooky Stuff Department

According to Jalopnik, the digital media that covers everything with wheels, the CIA has been looking into hacking vehicles since 2014. That information comes from the massive data dump by WikiLeaks in March – very interesting considering a white-hat hacker was able to pretty much take over a Corvette from a smartphone in 2015.

That legitimate hacker was able to turn on the windshield wipers and slam on the brakes. As autonomous elements are built into vehicles, more critical functions like steering could come under the control of a malicious hacker.

The hacking threat to drivers can be less direct, especially for the growing number of drivers who cannot read a map. In February, former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told a New York radio station the U.S. is in a cyber-security war and we’re not necessarily winning.

“Hackers have been able to get into uplinks and downlinks of our satellite systems, which means your GPS could go out and not come back on,” Rogers said.

But even if we do manage to find our way home and can keep our vehicles free of hackers, we may just drown in a veritable ocean of data. We’re not talking about what techies now call Big Data. This is something else, way beyond today’s understanding of what big is.

Writing in a company blog, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich described the virtual explosion of data that will be coming with more and more vehicle automation. Intel is the giant chipmaker that helped kick off the computer revolution more than 30 years ago.

“In 2016, the average person generated 650 MB of data a day through use of their PCs, mobile phones, and wearables (smart watches, etc.),” he wrote. By 2020, Krzanich projects the average person will generate 1.5 GB of data a day, an increase of 200 percent.

“But it pales in comparison to what we’re about to see in autonomous vehicles,” he said. With data from cameras, radar, sonar, GPS, and LIDAR (a laser-based sort of radar), along with traditional engine data, each vehicle will generate approximately 4 terabytes of data a day.

“Every autonomous car will generate the data equivalent of almost 3,000 people,” Krzanich said. “Let’s estimate just 1 million autonomous cars worldwide. That means automated driving will be representative of the data of 3 billion people.”

That’s a lot of ones and zeros. LL