Bustling San Jose — the third-largest metropolis in California, according to the 2010 census — is about to become a testbed for autonomous cars developed by Bosch and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler. Last November, the two jointly reaffirmed that they’ll pilot driverless vehicles in Silicon Valley as part of an on-demand offering revealed in July 2018. This morning, the companies announced the launch of a service in San Jose with a fleet of around 30 autonomous Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles, though only a select group of users will be able to hail them initially.
Mercedes-Benz sedans capable of level 4 driving, or automated navigation requiring little to no human input or oversight (as outlined by the Society of Automotive Engineers), service communities along the San Carlos Street and Stevens Creek Boulevard thoroughfares between downtown and west San Jose. Intrepid riders tap Daimler’s Car2Go car-sharing service — plus MyTaxi (which the automaker acquired in 2014) and Moovel, an app that compares the price and duration of ride- and bike-sharing services, public transit, and other means of transportation — to summon rides from designated pickup locations.
The sedans aren’t completely self-driving — at least not currently. Safety drivers monitor each trip from the driver’s seat, Daimler and Bosch said, ready to take control in the event of an emergency. And the vehicles only operate during daytime hours, “when demand is the greatest.”
Daimler’s fleet platform handles backend logistics, and in the future it will allow ride-hailing partners to integrate autonomous vehicles from a range of manufacturers (including Mercedes-Benz). The platform launched for conventional (i.e., human-driven) vehicles in the Bay Area this fall following a debut in Berlin, Germany, and for this pilot it orchestrates day-to-day maintenance tasks, in addition to basic operation.
As previously announced, Nvidia’s Drive Pegasus provides the computational horsepower needed for the Mercedes-Benzs’ real-time decisioning. A powerful processor and graphics chip manages the network of electronic control units (ECUs) — the sensor-equipped microcontrollers that control the transmission, door locks, windows, and other systems. And a custom cooling system keeps the ECUs chilly as they churn through up to 100 gigabytes of data per kilometer of distance traveled.
Nvidia unveiled Nvidia Drive PX Pegasus at GTC Europe in October 2017 in Munich, Germany. The company’s two Xavier system-on-chips and dual graphics cards are capable of performing more than 320 trillion operations per second, Nvidia claims, and of transferring up to a terabyte of data a second while ingesting data from up to 16 cameras and six lidar sensors. Bosch and Daimler estimate the performance is on par with about six “synchronized, highly advanced” desktop computers and assert that Pegasus — drawing on a bevy of radar, vision, and ultrasound sensors — can react to changing road conditions within 20 milliseconds.
“If automated driving is to become everyday reality, the technology has to work reliably and safely. And this is where we need tests such as our pilot project in San Jose,” said Dr. Michael Fausten, head of engineering for urban automated driving at Bosch. Dr. Uwe Keller, who is head of autonomous driving at Mercedes-Benz, added: “It’s not just the automated vehicles that have to prove their mettle. We also need proof that they can fit in as a piece of the urban mobility puzzle. We can test both these things in San Jose.”
Bosch and Daimler took the wraps off their self-driving partnership in 2017, with the goal of getting self-driving cars on roads in the next decade. It’s a symbiotic relationship: Bosch supplies components such as sensors, actuators, and control units, and Daimler contributes development vehicles and test facilities.
Both companies have at their disposal a million-square-foot proving ground designed especially for automated driving, which is located in Germany. There, they’re able to model complex traffic situations with high accuracy and as often as desired, complementing tests performed in simulation.
Bosch has made its autonomous driving ambitions abundantly clear. Last year, it created a new Connected Mobility Services division staffed with more than 600 employees, acquired B2B ride-sharing startup Splitting Fares, and partnered with TomTom on mapping systems that’ll help vehicles see the road ahead.
Daimler, for its part, in June 2018 obtained a permit from the Chinese government allowing it to test self-driving cars powered by Baidu’s Apollo platform on public roads in Beijing. (It already has permits for testing self-driving cars in the U.S. and Germany.)