Self-driving Cars Are Starting to Ply Israeli Roads in Their First Trials

Already a world auto-tech R&D power, Israel is now beginning to serve as a test track for the technology thanks to government support

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A Yandex self-driving car during a test in Israel.
A Yandex self-driving car during a test in Israel.Credit: Yandex

The day that you stop at a traffic light and turn to look at the driver of the car next to you and find there isn’t one isn’t that far off in Israel. There is already a huge concentration of local startups and global automakers in Israel working on driverless cars and the next stage of pilot programs is about to get underway.

Here and there companies have been testing self-driving vehicles, often quietly, but now that era of larger-scale pilot programs will begin in the coming year in places as varied as Ashdod city streets to the campus of Bar-Ilan University.

It’s being made possible not just because of the number of auto-tech companies and research and development centers in Israel but because the government has made it a priority and is working to changes rules and regulations to enable Israel to become a center for driverless trial programs.

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“Our goal is to fill Israel with autonomous, efficient and electric transportation on demand, which will reduce traffic and congestion,” said Anat Bonstein, director of the Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Initiative at the Prime Minister’s Office.

“We have a mandate to turn Israel into an international R&D center in the segment and that’s happening also in terms of regulations. Companies like Volkswagen and Mobileye didn’t simply decide to test service in Israel – they looked elsewhere, but they identified the potential here both in terms of innovation and in supportive regulations.”

Regulations are critical if self-driving cars are going to make the leap from the laboratory to the highway. Rules on such issues as liability in case of an accident and protocols for self-driving cars, such as whether they can cross a solid white line to avoid an accident. The government is also responsible for creating the roads autonomous vehicles can navigate.

Although there have been problems – for instance, Bar-Ilan’s self-driving shuttle that was stuck in customs, delaying its launch – the industry gives Israel’s government high marks for its support. The Transportation Ministry says it is working to ensure that trial vehicles don’t suffer delays like that in the future.

Bonstein’s unit, along with the Transportation Ministry, is heading up the regulatory drive, aided by inter-ministerial committees that include the treasury, the environment and energy ministries.

Israel’s best-known player in the industry is Mobileye, which was acquired by Intel two years ago. Since 2014 it has been conducting trials of driverless technology on public roads, mostly the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.

More recently it moved on to dense Jerusalem streets. “We’re experimenting with an ultra-urban route, with pedestrians running on the road and without clear separation lines,” said Erez Dagan, executive vice president for products and strategy.

General Motors has been conducting tests on roads that haven’t yet been opened to the public and has begun the mapping process necessary before it can advance to public roads.

“We’re working on artificial intelligence and deep learning. The big challenge is developing an AI agent that can replace the human brain and will know how to make informed decisions while driving a car,” said Gil Golan, CEO of General Motors Israel.

Yandex, the Russian tech company whose offerings include self-driving vehicles, is testing self-driving technology in Israel – after conducting previous tests in the United States and Russia.

In the process, a specially imported Toyota Prius racked up 1,000 kilometers on the roads. The goal, said the company, was to test technology in different geographical areas. In Russia, it offered a robo-taxi service. Yandex hasn’t said if it will do the same in Israel.

In fact, most of the emphasis, whether it’s by policy makers or the companies themselves, is on developing public transportation technology, which can be put to practical use more quickly than self-driving private cars, said Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s CEO.

“Truly autonomous driving, what is called level four or level five, I believe will come in two generations. The first generation will focus on robo-taxis, only on ride-hailing, because the sensitivity for cost is not that high,” he said.

“You can have a system that will cost tens of thousands of dollars on top of the cost of the car and still make a flourishing ride-hailing business. Once that matures, prices can go down – and that may take a decade. Then you’re talking about systems that cost a few thousands of dollars and can start proliferating to passenger cars,” Shashua explained.

Mobileye is planning a joint launch with Volkswagen and Israel’s Champion Motors for an automated ride-hailing service for Tel Aviv sometime by the year 2022. The idea is to deploy hundreds of driverless, electric taxis, and perhaps offer ride-sharing services. Mobileye will provide the self-driving tech and Volkswagen the vehicles, while Champion manages the fleet.

“By the end of the year you’ll start to see them around Tel Aviv in the first pilots,” said Dagan. “The cost per kilometer for a consumer in Tel Aviv will be significantly lower compared to a regular taxi.” There won’t be a driver to pay and the fleet can be managed more effectively from a central station, he explained.

Despite the customs delay, Bar-Ilan University is on track to launch a self-driving shuttle service on its campus in the next several weeks. The French company Navya, which offers the services in places like Las Vegas, will be supplying the technology. The minibus will have no steering wheel, but a driver on board will be able to apply brakes in case of emergencies.

During an initial period the shuttle bus will run only at night and without passengers, moving to daytime operations with passengers after a few weeks.

Its purpose is two-fold: to provide on-campus transportation and for R&D, said Dr. Eyal Yaniv of the university’s business school, who belongs to the Bar-Ilan Centre for Smart Cities.

Research will encompass behavior and technology issues, he said. “For example, we are in a joint study with a company that offers a solution to make sure that the safety driver remains alert in the autonomous vehicle. If it determines that the driver is asleep, it injects an odor into the passenger compartment that will wake him up. We will also be testing technologies that charge the vehicle from the road while it is driving,” he said.

In Ashdod a pilot program to serve the city with autonomous buses is getting under way together with the Singaporean company ST Engineering. The goal is to launch a commercial service next year along selected routes in the city.

The buses will use technology developed by ST alongside others developed by Israeli startups. The first stage is to map the selected routes, with the aim of conducting the first trials in roads closed to other vehicles later this year. The buses will drive themselves but include a driver who can take over in case of an emergency or technical failure.