As a precursor to our forthcoming webinar on Automated Driving and its accompanying market trends analysis feature, Intertraffic sat down with Richard Bishop, the man widely recognized as one of the world’s most knowledgeable autonomous vehicle experts, to explore how we got here… and where we’re going.
Richard Bishop has never been far away from any of the most significant moments in the development of driverless vehicles over the last 30 years. Formerly program manager at US Department of Transportation, in 1998 he launched his own consulting firm that has seen him work with some of the world’s market leaders and innovators such as Toyota, Peloton and Plus and seen his expertise become in ever-increasing demand, taking him around the world to congresses, conferences, seminars and workshops, culminating in his recent addition to the Forbes expert roster, but we started by asking Richard to take us back to the beginning of his time in the AV world.
Intertraffic: Richard, where and how did you first get into this fascinating sphere?
Richard Bishop (RB): "It was the best part of 30 years ago! I had had a career in the US Federal Government in the Defense Department that I had just kind of grown tired of. I wanted to do something else a little more civilian-oriented so I looked around for something within the Government and here was a job with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and what was then called Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS). I thought, ‘Oh, this looks cool’. It sounded really weird for an electronic engineer to go to the FHWA, but I took a chance. I was the first “Double E” they had hired in the last 20 years, so I was surrounded by civil engineers. This would have been 1991. So what became ITS was nascent in the US and of course, the neatest things were happening in Europe. Congress has passed the bill called ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) that established the IVHS program. And that was right after the Berlin Wall had come down, of course, and so there's a ‘swords to ploughshares’ sort of sentiment in Congress at that time. Someone on the appropriate committee in Congress put in a two-line clause in that piece of legislation saying, the Secretary of Transportation shall develop and demonstrate an automated highway system program. And so that because I was the only electronic engineer amongst a bunch of civil engineers, I was seen as the guy best suited to do that. And that became my program."
15 December: Webinar debate on the path to autonomous driving
"We showed the world that automated driving wasn't just something in science fiction books."
INTERTRAFFIC: That would be a great way to describe the word “serendipity”.
RB: "So huge, amazing serendipity. I'm really forever grateful for that and humbled. And it became a big deal at the time, we formed a consortium led by General Motors with Carnegie Mellon, and UC Berkeley and Caltrans, and Lockheed Martin. So it was a big deal. We organised the famous at the time Demo 97 in San Diego, which you can still find on YouTube. And, you know, I think we showed the world that automated driving wasn't just something in science fiction books, it really could be done. So we sort of shifted the mindset - we thought over the next few years we’d go ahead and develop a robust system description so that industry could take it from there. But at around that time political pressure in Washington regarding budgets meant that our long-term oriented, futuristic research program couldn't withstand the scrutiny and so they shut it down. At that point, I was restless again. So that's when I jumped off and started consulting and really enjoyed sort of putting my arms around the whole industry and trying to be useful."
INTERTRAFFIC: Going back to the mid-late 90s briefly what was the technology that was being used to automate driving at that point?
RB: "It was camera and radar. LIDAR was not in the discussion at all at that point. We were focused, we had several different technical areas of focus. One was the idea of car platooning. So that traffic could flow better, you get more capacity on the highway. So vehicle-to-vehicle communication was absolutely key to that. So it was basically a radar and camera. We had Carnegie Mellon working on a pure perception approach. So that was camera radar. We had UC Berkeley working on a more infrastructure-supported approach, so that was the idea of magnets in the roadway you experienced in Leiden and they were for tasks such as lane keeping, particularly important with the idea of snow covered roads, and that kind of thing."
INTERTRAFFIC: In 2007 you led a team in the DARPA Urban challenge. So how did that come about? It wasn’t all that long since your DoT program was cancelled and here you are heading up a team that took part in a globally famous autonomous vehicle competition.
RB: "It was around 2000 when the connected vehicle concept caught fire. And everybody's really excited in the US, we had the spectrum allocated in 1997, so that was the real focus of the ITS community. Back in the 90s, I had been in touch with my DoD counterparts who were doing unmanned ground vehicles for scouting and supporting the troops and that kind of thing, so they kept their program going and came up with this innovation of a challenge. So that instead of writing a statement of work and putting out an RFP, they just said, ‘Hey, here's a million dollar prize if you can do this thing’. And that really motivated and stimulated a whole new cast of characters, universities, etc. So the first challenge was a desert challenge. The vehicles weren't too successful. A couple of years later the vehicles did much better and that subsequently led to the urban challenge. This was, as you say, 2007, and it just lit a fire under the technical community and it was also when LIDAR really, really came along although it had been more widely used in some of the European programs like PREVENT. The team I lead was called Team Lux and we were sponsored by Ibeo, the LIDAR company, and I was pleased to lead his very small team. We did pretty well – I believe we were in the top 20 but they didn't rank all the entrants, but it was very impressive for such a small team and it allowed the team to show what LIDAR was capable of."
INTERTRAFFIC: So do you think that was the catalyst for this whole recent rash of technological development?
RB: "Actually, I do. I think the DARPA Challenge was a trigger point because it invigorated all these folks. But during that same decade we had the dotcom boom and crash around whatever it was, 1999. And, and so everyone was excited about startups. But I actually worked with a guy to try to do a startup to retrofit cars with adaptive cruise control. And we got nowhere because that startup world was all about software. If there's any hardware involved, forget about it. But the startup culture existed, and the DARPA Challenge kind of came together with that software-based startup culture, all because of Google. Google, the founders, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, said ‘Hey, this is cool’. The startup mentality is one in which it's cool. And you're doing pretty well, you can just give it a shot. There's a story that I have no idea if it's true, but I like it. So I'm going to tell it, and I'm going to run with it, which is that Larry Page of Google heard about Demo 97' and was fascinated at the time, thought that was the most amazing thing ever. And it's that seed that stayed in his head. Page had a big company with lots of money. He grabbed some of those guys from the winning teams in the Challenge and started an automated driving activity."
"Car OEMs would have risked a lot to run automated vehicles on public roads, whereas Google tested the water for them."
INTERTRAFFIC: I suppose once Google gets involved, the game changes?
RB: "What’s cool about that is that everything up to that point had been funded either by the car companies, with their research budget, or with public money. It was mainly motivated by public money, because it was kind of visionary. So the technology was happening, moving at a decent pace for research, but not a not a fast pace. So the paradigm completely shifted, when you had a startup culture saying, let's just go do this. Instead of it was motivated by the idea of ‘well, let's prove out one function, one use case, which is automated driving’. Well, all car companies have to do is sell cars to continue to exist, so there's no forcing function. When Google got into the game, it wasn't what I call a forcing function as such, but it was this opportunistic mindset that just changed everything. And then when Google first came to the public and revealed that in 2010, they'd been running automated cars on public roads, it could have been a huge negative public backlash. Who knew how that was going to go? But the public was intrigued and excited. Car OEMs would have risked a lot to do that, whereas Google tested the water for them. And so the OEMs shifted gears during the 2010 to 2020 decade, and what we're seeing is what has emerged from that combination of factors."