THE WIRED GUIDE TO SELF-DRIVING CARS
How a chaotic skunkworks race in the desert launched what’s poised to be a runaway global industry.
This article original submitted on wired.com
IN THE PAST five years, autonomous driving has gone from “maybe possible” to “definitely possible” to “inevitable” to “how did anyone ever think this wasn’t inevitable?” Every significant automaker is pursuing the tech, eager to rebrand and rebuild itself as a “mobility provider” before the idea of car ownership goes kaput. Waymo, the company that emerged from Google’s self-driving car project, has been at it the longest, but its monopoly has eroded of late. Ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber are hustling to dismiss the profit-gobbling human drivers who now shuttle their users about. Tech giants like Intel, IBM, and Apple are looking to carve off their slice of the pie as well. Countless hungry startups have materialized to fill niches in a burgeoning ecosystem, focusing on laser sensors, compressing mapping data, and setting up service centers to maintain the vehicles.
And cars that drive themselves are now everywhere. They’re prowling the streets of California and Michigan, Paris and London, Singapore and Beijing. This 21st-century gold rush is motivated by the intertwined forces of opportunity and survival instinct. By one account, driverless tech will add $7 trillion to the global economy and save hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few decades. Simultaneously, it will devastate the auto industry and its associated gas stations, drive-thrus, taxi drivers, and truckers. Some people will prosper. Most will benefit. Many will be left behind.
It’s worth remembering that when automobiles first started rumbling down manure-clogged streets, people called them “horseless carriages.” The moniker made sense: Here were vehicles that did what carriages did, minus the hooves. By the time “car” caught on as a term, the invention had become something entirely new. Over a century, it reshaped how humanity moves, and thus how (and where and with whom) humanity lives. This cycle has restarted, and the term “driverless car” will soon seem as anachronistic as “horseless carriage.” We don’t know how cars that don’t need human chauffeurs will mold society, but we can be sure a similar gear shift is on the way.
The First Self-Driving Cars
Just over a decade ago, the idea of being chauffeured around by a string of zeros and ones was ludicrous to pretty much everybody who wasn’t at an abandoned Air Force base outside Los Angeles, watching a dozen driverless cars glide through real traffic. That event was the Urban Challenge, the third and final competition for autonomous vehicles put on by Darpa, the Pentagon’s skunkworks arm.
At the time, America’s military-industrial complex had already thrown vast sums and years of research trying to make unmanned trucks. It had laid a foundation for this technology, but stalled when it came to making a vehicle that could drive at practical speeds, through all the hazards of the real world. So, Darpa figured, maybe someone else—someone outside the DOD’s standard roster of contractors, someone not tied to a list of detailed requirements but striving for a slightly crazy goal—could put it all together. It invited the whole world to build a vehicle that could drive across California’s Mojave Desert, and whoever’s robot did it the fastest would get a million-dollar prize.
The 2004 Grand Challenge was something of a mess. Each team grabbed some combination of the sensors and computers available at the time, wrote their own code, and welded their own hardware, looking for the right recipe that would take their vehicle across 142 miles of sand and dirt of the Mojave. The most successful vehicle went just seven miles. Most crashed, flipped, or rolled over within sight of the starting gate. But the race created a community of people—geeks, dreamers, and lots of students not yet jaded by commercial enterprise—who believed the robot drivers people had been craving for nearly forever were possible.
They came back for a follow-up race in 2005 and proved that making a car drive itself was indeed possible: Five vehicles finished the course. By the 2007 Urban Challenge, the vehicles were not just avoiding obstacles and sticking to trails but following traffic laws, merging, parking, even making safe, legal U-turns.
When Google launched its self-driving car project in 2009, it started by hiring a team of Darpa Challenge veterans. Within 18 months, they had built a system that could handle some of California’s toughest roads (including the famously winding block of San Francisco’s Lombard Street) with minimal human involvement. A few years later, Elon Musk announced Tesla would build a self-driving system into its cars. And the proliferation of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft weakened the link between being in a car and owning that car, helping set the stage for a day when actually driving that car falls away too. In 2015, Uber even poached dozens of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University—a robotics and artificial intelligence powerhouse—to get its effort going.
After a few years, the technology reached a point where no automaker could ignore it. Companies like Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, Mercedes, and the rest started pouring billions into their own R&D. The tech giants followed, as did an armada of startups: Hundreds of small companies are now rushing to offer improved radars, cameras, lidars, maps, data management systems, and more to the big fish. The race is on.
The Future of Self-Driving Cars
Let’s start with the question you definitely want to ask: When will self-driving cars take over? Answer: wrong question. The autonomous vehicle is not a single device that someday will be ready and start shipping. It’s a system, a collection of inventions applied in a novel way. And, remember, the advance of the original car was constrained and shaped by forces like the growth of the road network and the availability of gasoline. The takeover of the self-driving car will depend on a new set of questions—the questions you should be asking.
When will self-driving technology be ready? That may, improbably, prove the easiest bit of making this real for the people whose lives it will affect. The hardware, to start, is mostly there. Cameras and radars are already cheap and robust enough to build into mass-market cars. Laser-shooting lidar is still pricey, but dozens of startups and major companies are racing to bring its cost to heel. Chipmakers like Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia are pushing down power requirements for these rolling supercomputers.
The real job is to endlessly improve the software (powered by machine learning) used by those computers to correctly interpret the data from all those sensors. That’s why Ford invested a billion dollars into artificial intelligence outfit Argo AI, why General Motors bought a startup called Cruise, why Waymo has driven six million autonomous miles on public roads. Safe driving requires more than just knowing that a person is over there; you also have to know that said person is riding a bicycle, how they’re likely to act, and how to respond. That’s hard for a robot, but these budding Terminators are getting better, fast.
But are they getting better fast enough? In March 2018, a self-driving Uber Volvo XC90 operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman named Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. The crash raised a number of suddenly pressing questions about testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. Is the tech actually ready? How should regulators handle this weird in-between moment, when the robots are good but not good enough? Should these vehicles really be testing on public roads? Right now, it’s not clear how the incident will affect the development of self-driving vehicles in the US.
Meanwhile, a less capable version of the tech is already on the market. Cadillac Super Cruise, Nissan ProPilot Assist, and Tesla Autopilot all keep the car in its lane and a safe distance from other cars, allowing the human behind the wheel to take their hands off the wheel, provided they keep paying attention to the road and remain ready to take control if needed. That’s because these systems are not especially capable: They can’t see things like traffic lights or stopped firetrucks. The problem is that humans are not especially well suited for serving as backups. Blame the vigilance decrement. And as these features proliferate, their shortcomings are making themselves clear. At least two Tesla drivers in the US have died using the system (one hit a truck in 2016, another hit a highway barrier this year), and the National Transportation Safety Board has criticized Tesla for making a system that’s too easy to abuse. CEO Elon Musk has defended Autopilot as a life-saving feature, but the main statistic he uses doesn’t hold up, and it’s not clear, exactly, how to produce more reliable numbers—or smarter systems.
Next question: Can we build and operate these things en masse? The huge automakers that build millions of cars a year rely on the complex, precise interaction of dozens or hundreds of companies, the folks who provide all the bits and bobs that go into a car, and the services to keep them running. They need dealers to sell the things, gas pumps or charging stations to fuel them, body shops to fix them, parking lots to store them. The folks who want to offer autonomous vehicles need to rethink interactions and processes built up over a century. Waymo has partnered with Avis to take care of its fleet of driverless minivans in Arizona, and it’s working with a startup called Trov to insure their passengers. GM is rejiggering one of its production plants to pump out Chevrolet Bolts without steering wheels or pedals. Lidar maker Velodyne opened a “megafactory” in San Jose where it says it could make a million units a year if it needed to. Federal regulators are considering ways to certify vehicles that don’t conform to safety standards written with human drivers in mind. Various would-be providers are drawing up plans for operations centers, where humans can keep track of their robo-fleets and cater to customers or cars in need.
And it’s not if these things will be deployed, but how. To start, forget the idea of owning a fully self-driving vehicle. The idea of a car that can handle any situation, anywhere you want to go, is decades off. Instead, expect to see these robo-cars debut in taxi-like fleets, operating in limited conditions and areas, so their operators can avoid particularly tricky intersections and make sure everything is mapped in excruciating detail. To take a ride, you’ll likely have to use predetermined pickup and dropoff points, so your car can always pull over safely and legally. Meanwhile, the people making these cars will be tackling knotty, practical questions. They’ll be figuring out how much to charge so they can recoup the R&D costs, but not so much to dissuade potential riders. They’ll wrangle with regulators and insurance companies, and what to do in the inevitable event of a crash that brings in the lawyers and legislators and safety advocates. And then, they’ll have to figure out how to expand—which is when the real competition begins. Uber and Ford and Waymo and GM may all start in different cities, but soon, they’ll start fighting for turf. You know how fiercely Uber and Lyft fight for market share now, tracking drivers, trying to undercut each other, and piling up promotions to bring in riders? Now imagine that same fight with several times more competitors.
Here’s the question everyone should really be asking: How will this technology change your life? Well, your ride to the airport will get cheaper and safer. Your pizza will show up in a human-free robot, no tipping required. Your highway commute will become less of a drag. But that’s the basic stuff, the horseless carriage.
The truth is, it’s hard to imagine what people will do once vehicles can move about on their own, and once these things are so efficient that the cost of transportation falls to something approaching zero. It’s easy to conjure up a dystopia, a world where robocars encourage sprawl, everyone lives 100 miles from their job, and sends their self-driving servants to do their errands and clog our streets. The optimists imagine a new kind of utopian city, where this technology not only eliminates crashes but integrates with existing public transit and remains affordable for all users. Like the internet, these vehicles will reflect some of our worse impulses, but also channel our best.