Seven years ago, Waymo discovered that spring blossoms made his self-driving cars tremble on the brakes. Soap bubbles too. And flares.
New tests, over years of testing, have revealed more and more distractions for driverless cars. Their driving skills improved, but it was difficult to match the skills of human drivers. America’s congested roads turned out to be an intimidating place for a robot.
Wizards of Silicon Valley said people will now drive to work in self-driving cars. Instead, there have been court battles, injuries and deaths, and tens of billions of dollars spent on frustrating and unstable technology that some researchers say is still years away from becoming the next big thing. Of the industry.
Now the self-driving car chase is getting a reset. Companies like Uber and Lyft, fearful of spending their money on self-sustaining technology, have pulled out. Only the richest outfits like Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet; automotive giants; and a handful of start-ups manage to stay in the game.
The tech and auto giants could still work for years on their driverless car projects. Each will spend an additional $ 6 billion to $ 10 billion before the technology becomes mainstream – by the end of the decade, according to estimates from Pitchbook, a research firm that tracks financial activity. But even that prediction might be overly optimistic.
“It’s a transformation that’s going to happen over 30 years and maybe more,” said Chris Urmson, one of the first engineers on Google’s self-driving car project before it became the business unit of Alphabet called Waymo. He is now managing director of Aurora, the company that acquired the autonomous vehicle unit from Uber.
So what went wrong? Some researchers wouldn’t say anything – that’s how science works. You cannot fully predict what will happen in an experiment. The self-driving car project has turned out to be one of the most high-profile tech experiments of this century, taking place on the streets across the country and run by some of its most prominent companies.
This hype has attracted billions of dollars in investment, but it has created unrealistic expectations. In 2015, billionaire electric car maker Tesla boss Elon Musk said fully functional self-driving cars were only two years away. More than five years later, Tesla cars offered simpler range designed just for highway driving. Even that was fraught with controversy after several fatal crashes (which the company blamed on improper use of technology).
Perhaps no company has experienced the turbulence of driverless car development more intermittently than Uber. After poaching 40 robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University and acquiring a self-driving truck startup for $ 680 million in stock, the ridesharing company settled a lawsuit against Waymo, which was followed by a plea from guilt of a former executive accused of stealing intellectual property. A pedestrian in Arizona was killed in an accident with one of his driverless cars. In the end, Uber basically paid Aurora to acquire its self-driving unit.
But for companies with the deepest pockets, the science, they hope, continues to advance one improved round at a time. In October, Waymo took an important step forward: it launched the world’s first “fully autonomous” taxi service. In the Phoenix suburbs, anyone can now board a minibus without a driver behind the wheel. But that doesn’t mean the company will immediately roll out its technology to other parts of the country.
Dmitri Dolgov, who recently took over as CEO of Waymo after the departure of auto industry veteran John Krafcik, said the company viewed its service in Arizona as a test case. Based on what he learned in Arizona, he said, Waymo is building a new version of his autonomous driving technology that he will eventually deploy in other locations and other types of vehicles, including including long haul trucks.
The suburb of Phoenix is particularly well suited to self-driving cars. The streets are wide, there are few pedestrians, and there is almost no rain or snow. Waymo supports its autonomous vehicles with remote technicians and roadside assistance teams who can help get cars out of a difficult situation, either via the internet or in person.
“Autonomous vehicles can be deployed today, in certain situations,” said Elliot Katz, a former lawyer who advised many large autonomous vehicle companies before launching a start-up, Phantom Auto, which provides software for the driver. remote assistance and operation of autonomous driving. vehicles when they get stuck in difficult positions. “But you still need a human in the loop.”
Autonomous driving technology is not yet agile enough to reliably handle the variety of situations encountered by human drivers every day. He can usually handle the suburbs of Phoenix, but he can’t replicate the human chutzpah needed to blend into the Lincoln Tunnel in New York or rush to a stop on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles.
“You have to remove each layer before you can see the next layer” of challenges for the technology, said Nathaniel Fairfield, a Waymo software engineer who has worked on the project since 2009, describing some of the distractions encountered by cars. “Your car has to be pretty good at driving before you can really put it in the situations where it’s handling the next hardest thing.”
Like Waymo, Aurora is now developing autonomous trucks as well as passenger vehicles. No company has deployed trucks without safety drivers behind the wheel, but Urmson and others argue that autonomous trucks will hit the market faster than anything designed to carry regular consumers.
Long-distance trucking does not involve passengers who might not forgive the nervous brakes. The routes are also simpler. Once you master one stretch of highway, said Urmson, it’s easier to master another. But even driving on a long, relatively straight highway is extremely difficult. Delivering dinner orders to a small neighborhood is an even bigger challenge.
“This is one of the biggest technical challenges of our generation,” said Dave Ferguson, another early engineer on the Google team, who is now president of Nuro, a product delivery company. groceries, pizzas and other products.
Mr Ferguson said many believe autonomous driving technology will improve like an internet service or a smartphone app. But robotics is much more difficult. It was wrong to pretend anything else.
“If you look at almost any industry that’s trying to solve really, really tough technical challenges, the people who tend to get involved are a little bit crazy and a little bit optimistic,” he said. “You have to have this optimism to get up every day and bang your head against the wall trying to solve a problem that has never been solved, and there is no guarantee that it will ever be.”
Uber and Lyft aren’t completely abandoning driverless cars. While that might not help results for a long time, they still want to deploy autonomous vehicles by partnering with companies that are still working on the technology. Lyft now says autonomous rides could arrive by 2023.
“These cars will be able to travel on a limited set of streets in a limited set of weather conditions at certain speeds,” said Jody Kelman, an executive at Lyft. “We will be able to deploy these cars safely, but they will not be able to go to so many places.”