Quick Thoughts: News Shows Waymo Making Progress While Rivals Flail

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Paul Sagawa

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August 28, 2017

Quick Thoughts: News Shows Waymo Making Progress While Rivals Flail

• Thursday’s WSJ article revealed turmoil amidst significant turnover at Tesla’s autopilot initiative, strongly suggesting that CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly overstated progress toward L4 autonomy

• Wednesday’s NYT piece on AAPL’s self-driving program revealed a sharply scaled back effort with modest ambitions. A Business Insider piece put AAPL at least 3 years behind GOOGL

• Uber has also seen both turmoil and turnover in its self-driving program, under the pressure of GOOGL’s lawsuit and the company’s leadership crisis

• Meanwhile, The Atlantic had an exclusive on GOOGL’s secret test site and sophisticated simulation system used to prepare its vehicles for extreme circumstances

Last week was a big one for news on self-driving cars. On Wednesday, The Atlantic published a long-form article on Google’s Waymo business unit. You can read it here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/08/inside-waymos-secret-testing-and-simulation-facilities/537648/ In the article, we are introduced to Waymo’s “Carcraft” driving simulation software and its secret testing facility called “The Castle”. With Carcraft, Waymo takes unusual situations that it encounters in its 600 vehicle road testing effort and reruns them in simulation hundreds of thousands of times with subtle variations to extract maximum insight from experience for its autonomous control system. Waymo reported driving more than 2.5 billion simulated autonomous miles in 2016, compared to the 3 million that it has driven on public roads. At the Castle, Google has a 1,611 acre campus to build roads on which it can run through particularly knotty situations, like crowded traffic circles, dangerous highway situations (like a car cutting across lines to get to an exit, erratic pedestrians, cars pulling out of blind driveways, etc. The scenarios meticulously tested at the Castel become fodder for Carcraft. The article depicts a company that is very far along in developing a self-driving solution able to cope with the panoply of hazards and surprises that human drivers face.

Also on Wednesday, the New York Times published a piece on Apple’s self-driving initiative, called Project Titan. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/technology/apple-self-driving-car.html It’s behind the NYT paywall (sorry). This article describes a significant scale-back in the company’s autonomous vehicle aspirations. At one time, Apple had planned to design its own cars, with ambitions to redefine the experience of transportation in the way it had redefined the meaning of the cell phone. Today, it is working on self-driving software with the hope of offering it to car makers and service operators. However, the progress is sobering – while Google has “The Castle” and “Carcraft”, Apple is testing its initial solution in its employee shuttle running fixed route between its Cupertino and Palo Alto facilities. Business Insider quotes a knowledgeable source as saying Apple’s self-driving efforts are where Google’s were “three years ago” http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-self-driving-car-technology-where-google-was-three-years-ago-2017-8 Based on The Atlantic’s reporting, it would seem that that assessment is generous.

Thursday brought a tough Wall Street Journal article on Tesla’s autopilot program. https://www.wsj.com/articles/teslas-push-to-build-a-self-driving-car-sparks-dissent-among-its-engineers-1503593742 CEO Elon Musk’s announcement that the hardware in new Tesla’s would allow for fully autonomous driving came to the surprise of the engineering team that had developed the system. Shortly after, the leader of that team resigned after offering comments critical of Musk, and his replacement, former Apple engineer Chris Lattner, bolted after just 6 months at the company, reportedly after butting heads with Musk. The Journal article goes on to recount previous instances of seemingly rash moves to push autopilot aggressively, the acrimonious separation between Tesla and its previous autonomy partner MobilEye, and further signs of dissent amongst the autopilot engineering ranks. We believe that Tesla’s progress toward full autonomy remains considerably overstated. While there are signs that the company has begun uploading video footage from privately-owned Tesla’s while they are parked via WiFi, it does NOT have the level of detail necessary to create the 3D vision of the driving environment needed for full autonomy simulation. The database is millions of miles long but just an inch deep.

Finally, Uber continues to be in the news for the wrong sorts of reasons. A quick Google News search on “Uber Self Driving Cars” returns pages and pages of articles on the negative developments in Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber, the turmoil in the once solid self-driving development team, and the extraordinary drama around former CEO Travis Kalanick. Uber began its push into autonomy three years ago, gutting Carnegie Mellon University’s highly regarded robotics faculty before its ill-fated wooing of Waymo lead engineer Anthony Levandowski – the root of its legal woes with Google. In the wake of all of this, there have been key departures from the self-driving initiative, including the only recently hired AI superstar Gary Marcus, and reports of morale issues amongst the Pittsburgh based team. Shoring things up a bit, Uber signed on University of Toronto deep learning expert and Geoff Hinton (noted Google AI guru) protégé Raquel Urtasun to lead a Canadian self-driving laboratory that appears to have stanched the bleeding at least a bit. Of course, evidence from the trial suggests that even without the drama, the Uber autonomous program was well behind Waymo. If Google triumphs in court, it could be a substantial further setback to the Uber autonomous driving program.

All of this underscores the big lead that Waymo has established in delivering truly autonomous driving technology. While ex-pats from the program have popped up all over the industry to try and jump start self-driving startups and development programs at various would-be players, they can only expedite the process by a bit. Self-driving tech has two major elements – 3D digital mapping and autonomous controls – and Waymo has a dramatic lead in both. Tesla, Apple and Uber have often been touted as major challengers in the race to bring fully autonomous vehicles to market, but this week’s news suggests that Google doesn’t have to be all that concerned.

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