Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment

Keeping Humans in the Loop in Autonomous Vehicles

Editor’s Note: #

Ken Pyle interviews Mike Robinson at CES2015.
Ken Pyle and Mike Robinson at CES2015.

A couple of years ago I let my imagination run wild when trying to piece together what Google’s end-game would be with the autonomous car. The resulting article led to an introduction with many experts in the field, including one of the early pioneers in bringing automony and mobility together. Award winning car designer, Michael Vernon Robinson has not only been thinking about the impact of autonomous vehicles since before the turn of the century, he has been working on various forms of autonomy since the 1990s with his work on the Lancia Nea concept car.

As with other innovations, it takes decades for technology to become an “overnight success”. With each passing day, the elements for a technological revolution in mobility are solidifying. It is an honor, then, to be able to publish the English-language version of Michael Robinson’s vision for how the impending changes will impact the way we get around and even interact with one another.

So, stay tuned for Michael Vernon Robinson’s monthly series, The Road to Revolution. And for those who read Italian, check out his publication in Quattroruote,

Keeping Humans in the Loop in Autonomous Vehicles #

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) are the hottest subject for OEMs worldwide. They have all jumped in head first into the technology race for leadership in the sector, which should theoretically ensure their survival in a rapidly changing market. IT companies are testing many potential autonomous vehicle (AV) solutions, others by OEMs, aiming at large-scale production of semi-autonomous vehicles which they declare will be available by the end of the decade.

Elements of self-driving car user interface design - image courtesy of Michael Robinson, ED
Elements of self-driving car user interface design – image courtesy of Michael Robinson, ED

The fact that absolutely everyone is talking about it now is music to my ears! For years I was considered a “techno heretic” by my colleagues for preaching ridiculous ideas like self driving cars. AVs have been part of my life since 1996, when I became the Design Director at Lancia, and created two autonomous concept cars called Lancia Dialogos and Lancia Nea. While reinterpreting the traditions of the century old luxury brand, I was already looking heavily towards the future, building running prototypes of AVs, eight years before the first DARPA Challenge, and two decades before all the present day hype.

In 2011 I designed the AgustaWestland Project Zero as Design Director at Bertone, an unmanned, all-electric, twin tiltrotor helicopter, which won the coveted . My latest creation called Torq was the first fully electric, fully autonomous concept racecar in the world, with no external windows. It was presented in 2015 at the Geneva Motor Show, with the goal of providing OEMs and research institutions a fully open source, high-tech mobile laboratory designed to accelerate user interface advancements.

A long, twenty year journey, full of passion and research, which suggests how far we still have to go before AVs can really be appreciated and considered an integral part of our lives. Car designers like me will become important protagonists during the greatest transformation in the history of the automobile, offering not only our creativity from an aesthetic point of view, but above all we must safeguard man’s 130 year love affair with automobiles, especially at a time when steering wheels will start disappearing. Yeah, the real news, which no one talks about yet, is that in a few decades, fully autonomous vehicles will no longer need steering wheels.

This profound transformation in the automotive industry will completely change the business model for all those who are presently inside or trying to get inside. According to Alex Rubalcava, automotive OEMs have plenty of time to prepare for an autonomous future. One or two might even surprise us and succeed with the transition. Car designers also need to succeed the transition, realizing that simply preserving the beauty of the clean lines and elegant forms, typical of traditional Italian design. Beside the aesthetics, we must pursue the development of UX or Experiential Design, which I call “the design of the invisible”, to make life more exciting inside autonomous vehicles (and not just sitting there watching the steering wheel turn back and forth!). Close technical cooperation between OEMs and tier one suppliers will help transform the automobile world directly into the Digital Age, thanks to the fusion of two cultures: Automotive and Information Technology.

From racecar to everyday use
Self Driving Car Evolution – image courtesy of Michael Robinson, ED.

The convergence between the Automotive and IT industries has already taken place in the ED Group, the largest engineering and design company in Italy. President David Pizzorno, who has many years of experience in Electronics and Information Technology applied to the automotive industry, founded the ED Group in 1998. He asked me to join him as his business partner in 2014, merging my forward thinking design team with his mechanical & electronics engineering teams, and his cutting edge IT software team. Constantly expanding, with offices in China, Japan and the United States, ED today represents a unique Italian center of excellence that provides “turnkey projects” to our customers, integrating Automotive design & engineering with IT software.

ED has recently invested €18 million to expand its facilities with the construction of a new headquarters near Torino, Italy, which includes specialist areas, the implementation of high-value talent within the corporate organization, specifically strengthening areas like engineering, modeling, and software development. The new high-tech center is designed to develop innovation in the foothills of the Alps surrounding Torino, as if we were in Silicon Valley. We deliberately invested in Italy because we believe in this country and we are convinced that all the right skills are available to not only be globally competitive in high-tech, high quality services, but above all, to be leaders and not followers in the powerful evolution of the auto industry.

In addition to the traditional design, modeling, engineering and prototyping activities, ED is able to support customers for all the specific developments of electronics and HMI (Human Machine Interface), with a team of talented software specialists who have added this extremely technological activity to the core business of the company. For this reason we are considered a strategic partner for those who are investing in the development of next-gen products today.

We know that most AVs will be EVs (Electric Vehicles) and vice versa. For this reason, EVs have also enjoyed a tremendous boom in the last few years, and will continue to grow rapidly, alongside AVs. At the Beijing Auto Show last month 152 EVs were presented to the public! There are still many obstacles holding back both AVs and EVs. Some are technological difficulties (battery duration and charging speeds for example). Others are outside the automotive industry, like Cyber Security: external manipulation of extremely complex architectures which are all based on high-speed data signals could threaten the very existence of AVs. ED has developed technologies and systems to “defend” the user from these outside attacks for the past twenty years.

However, we shouldn’t think of this vision of the future as some sort of robotic manipulation, like those we see in blockbuster science fiction films. We prefer a more “Human-centric” approach, keeping the human in the loop in AVs. Italy is a Latin based culture which favors the humanitarian side of technology, transforming the concept of “driving pleasure” into a new form of “well-being”, which will offer fascinating solutions for the end-user who will transform their interaction modes with the vehicle.

Our solution is called “Ambrogio”, the typical name for a chauffeur in Italy, and one of my very first AI projects back in my Lancia days. Ambrogio is a Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA), or if you prefer, a computer with a driver’s license, an invisible driver in every one of our autonomous cars. He’s an old friend, who greets you verbally, respectfully, in any vehicle you enter, like Jarvis in “Ironman” or Samantha in “Her”, one that will help us solve all problems in traffic and much more. Better than a smartphone or a PC, Ambrogio will be an ongoing technology development throughout the ambitious, overall project we call MAAL (Mobile Autonomous Automobile Laboratory) which will give us the opportunity to develop different forms of autonomous mobility solutions, including city cars, semi trucks, motorcycles, and public transport, all based on the same open source platform.

As you can see, we have a mountain of work to do. It will take many years of testing before fully autonomous cars will be integrated into our society, offering spectacular services that no one has even begun to think about yet. With great pride we offer our very Italian vision and passion, to help save 1.2 million lives on the worldwide roads every year.

Michael Vernon Robinson
ED – CEO & Design Director
CEO & Design Director of ED – a unique Italian center of excellence that provides “turnkey” projects to our customers, integrating Automotive design and engineering with IT software – reveals his strategy on autonomous vehicles

Author Michael Vernon Robinson

By Michael Vernon Robinson

CEO & Design Director of ED - a unique Italian center of excellence that provides "turnkey" projects to our customers, integrating Automotive design and engineering with IT software.

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