Waymo Is Millions Of Miles Ahead In Robot Car Tests; Does It Need A Billion More?

Sometime this year Waymo, Alphabet Inc.’s prized driverless car bet, starts a first of its kind revenue-generating robo-taxi service in Phoenix.

Ahead of that the unit is maintaining a steady cadence of news underscoring how mature the former Google Self-Driving Car project is – including how big a lead it has over rivals in test miles.

Waymo this week said its test fleet has logged 5 million miles driving in autonomous mode on public roads. That’s more than double the 2 million miles Uber reached in December (though both companies are now capable or racking up a million test miles about every three months, based on reporting by Forbes’ Biz Carson). Waymo’s tally in computer-simulated tests, where it’s running 10,000 virtual vehicles through scenarios 24 hours a day, has passed 5 billion miles, and it also tries to stump robot drivers at a private test facility in rural California.

“In raw miles, Waymo is by far the leader,” said Grayson Brulte, a Beverly Hills-based driverless industry consultant. “They’re like Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis – running a 100-meter dash around everybody.”

But as many miles as it’s logged in the real world, Waymo may still be far from what it or any other company needs to do that. A 2016 study by RAND Corp. determined that demonstrating the reliability of autonomous vehicle tech to handle anything that could happen on public roads, in terms of reducing traffic fatalities and injuries, could require hundreds of millions or even hundreds of billions of test miles.

“They do have a meaningful lead – nobody else comes close to the millions of miles Waymo has driven on roads over the past decade,” said Nidhi Kalra, a San Francisco-based RAND scientist who was the lead author of the 2016 report. “It means they are finding the rarer and trickier situations and learning more and more. There’s just no true substitute for this.”

All those Waymo test miles racked since 2009 – predominantly in places with lots of sun and little snow or inclement weather – mean its fleet of robotic minivans have contended with more roadway circumstances than a human driver might confront in multiple lifetimes. Each mile is also uploaded to the cloud and shared across its fleet in a never-ending learning process for the artificial intelligence behind the wheel that Waymo says is key to building a better driver.

“We’ve now test driven in 25 U.S. cities, gaining experience in different weather conditions and terrains: from the snowy streets of Michigan to the steep hills of San Francisco, to the desert conditions of Greater Phoenix,” Waymo said in a recent blog post. “And because the lessons we learn from one vehicle can be shared with the entire fleet, every new mile counts even more.”

That helps explain why it does so well in annual tallies by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles that summarize how often a manufacturer’s test vehicles disengage from autonomous mode and hand over control to a human technician. Waymo said last month that its California test fleet had just 0.18 disengagements per thousand miles last year, compared with 0.80 disengagements per thousand miles for General Motors Cruise, the second-best performer in the DMV data.

Nothing is as critical as logging miles to verify the technology with statistical comparisons to human beings, said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and Director of its Center for Automotive Research.

“Humans tend to have roughly one fatal crash every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, so 5 million is still too small to compare on that basis,” he told Forbes. Yet if road tests focus on particularly difficult driving scenarios, “you can get a handle on these from much less than 5 million miles, assuming those miles are well distributed – not all on a couple of freeways, for instance,” he said.

Continually adding real-world test miles is critical for developing statistical models that can be used in computer simulation, Gerdes said. “These additional miles provide insight into how likely certain situations are and what sort of variability exists. This enables increasingly refined models that can point out potentially troublesome or critical situations for simulation.”

At this point, Waymo’s simulated miles may be more meaningful, owing to the greater complexity of “critical situations” it can create, he said. “I would imagine their simulator is highly refined and enables a lot of sensitivity testing in critical situations. The quality and comprehensiveness of a simulator is, to me anyway, more impressive than the number of miles simulated.”

RAND’s Kalra isn’t certain how to assess the value of Waymo’s massive amount of simulated driving data for two reasons. “We don’t know what those miles are like or how well they represent the real world, and we have no idea how well the vehicle actually did in simulation,” she said.

Given that Waymo’s robot chauffeur service will soon be offered to the public for the first time, we’ll soon find out exactly how much it’s learned from all those miles and the company has truly built a better driver.

As featured in Forbes on March 2, 2018

Cecil Spaceport Plans First Commercial Launch

The Cecil Spaceport has been a space center in name only since it was authorized in 2010, but that could change a year from now.

The Westside facility is gearing up for a possible first commercial space launch in December, although it will more likely happen next year, said Todd Lindner, director of Cecil Spaceport.

“In all likelihood, the launch will come in the spring of ’19” Lindner said Tuesday at a JAX Chamber forum on technology and automation in the transportation industry.

The spaceport has been working with Generation Orbit, based in Atlanta.

Cecil Spaceport is one of six U.S. facilities authorized to launch vehicles into space horizontally. Linder said the first payloads would likely be small satellites.

Although he didn’t say if it is possible at Cecil, Linder also said space tourism is drawing closer to reality, with paying customers reaching an altitude of 320,000 to 330,000 feet and achieving weightlessness for about 20 minutes.

He said the projected cost of those trips has dropped from about $250,000 to $120,000-$130,000.

“Eventually it will be affordable for all,” he said.

Space travel is not the only rapidly advancing transportation technology. Several panelists at the forum at the University of North Florida said autonomous vehicles — that is, vehicles on the road without drivers — are getting closer to reality.

“We will be there in the next two or three years,” said Dean Bushey, engineering professor at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

Grayson Brulte, a California-based consultant who specializes in autonomous vehicles, thinks driverless vehicles will become so commonplace that the newest generation of Americans won’t even need driver’s licenses

“A child born in the last three years will never drive on a public road,” he said.

Brulte said autonomous systems will be coming online this year in major cities including Miami, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is testing a system called the Ultimate Urban Circulator that would operate autonomous vehicles through Downtown.

The JTA system would integrate the tracks of the Automated Skyway Express with lanes on city streets to extend the network of the underused skyway.

JTA Chief Executive Officer Nathaniel Ford said he believes that as the population of Downtown Jacksonville grows, residents will want to use the autonomous vehicles.

“There’s going to be a need for some type of Downtown transportation network,” Ford said before the conference.

“What I like about Jacksonville’s program is the city is taking something old, the Skyway, and making something new,” said Jordan Crenshaw, assistant policy counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Technology Engagement Center.

Crenshaw said Florida cities are moving quicker to embrace autonomous technology than other states and the federal government.

“We can use a lot more Florida in D.C.,” he said.

JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis also supports autonomous vehicle technology to meet the city’s transportation needs.

“Instead of putting more bricks and sticks in the grass, how do we get smart about how we move people?” Davis said.

“I really believe the autonomous vehicle conversation is the future,” he said.

As featured in the Jax Daily Record on February 21, 2018.

Self-Driving Pledge Skirmish Opens a Debate

Reporting on self-driving cars gives journalists a chance to rise above the ideological bickering that defines most of the national debate today.

The operating standards of sensor configurations or specs on a software stack don’t exactly appeal to partisan fodder. But on Thursday, the announcement that 15 mobility companies — including banner names such as Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar and smaller upstarts such as Via and Ola — have signed on to a pledge to adhere to core principles for ethical deployment of self-driving vehicles set off a small skirmish online between progressive advocates of shared mobility and free market-types skeptical of heavy-handed control of development of this new technology. It foreshadows the debate to come, when self-driving cars hit the streets en masse and cities and states across the nation have to make tough decisions on what is and is not allowable in their jurisdictions.

The “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities” pledge comes off as benign (People over vehicles! Promote equity!) but masks a deeper philosophical debate that goes back a century to the beginning of urban planning. Namely, how active a role should coordination and regulation play in our transportation, and what do services that get some degree of public support via roads or licensed monopolies owe their customers?

Viewed in that light, some of the principles actually do come off as fairly radical. For instance, the 10th and final principle advocates that autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas only be operated in shared fleets, eschewing personal ownership of self-driving cars in cities.

“All this is doing is supporting a political ideology,” said Grayson Brulte, an autonomous vehicle consultant who advises Beverly Hills, Calif. “I consider myself for the free market, but I think there will be shared and there will be private. What this coalition is proposing is anti-competitive; it’s eliminating choice.”

Some are skeptical, to put it mildly, of the names behind the pledge: The National Resources Defense Council, Transportation for America and Rocky Mountain Institute are all notable for their progressive politics. Robin Chase, a co-founder of Zipcar and primary advocate behind the pledge, has sounded the alarm over self-driving cars and climate change for years.

But it wasn’t so long ago that when urban and transit advocates would meet, cars as transport would be completely off the table in favor of biking or light rail. That’s changed with the advent of autonomous cars, yet it doesn’t seem like the companies behind this technology have caught wind.

For instance, it’s significant that the initial signatories on this pledge include just two companies, Uber and Lyft, that are seriously developing autonomous technology. They’re the only ones on a notable list including Waymo, General Motors and Aptiv that have had to seriously engage in city politics.

Rather than some sort of left-wing conspiracy that these principles are being painted as, they should be viewed as an entry point into a debate that will run for years after these cars hit the streets. While the focus is on developing the product now, the conversation is quickly shifting to the rules and regulations that will govern how autonomous cars are used. Moreover, there are legitimate arguments companies could make for and against shared mobility absent of the ideological rancor. For instance, shared fleets make a lot more sense if autonomous cars are too expensive for regular consumers to purchase.

Companies that may want to stay above the fray in the urban debates should rethink. They have a voice — and they should use it.

As featured in Automotive News on February 2, 2018.

AAA Survey: Americans are Warming to Driverless Cars

Americans are warming to the idea of riding in self-driving vehicles, although they’re still wary of sharing the road with them.

While a majority of U.S. drivers still say they’re afraid of riding in a fully autonomous vehicle, a new AAA survey finds that fewer are expressing those fears than in previous years.

Sixty-three percent of motorists tell the organization that they’re uncomfortable with the idea of ceding all control to a self-driving system. That’s down from 78 percent during an identical survey released in March 2017, and the reduction in 15 percentage points equates to a rise in trust of roughly 20 million licensed drivers, says AAA. This is the third consecutive year the organization has conducted a survey that provides a snapshot glance at driver attitudes toward advanced driver technology and autonomous vehicles.

The change portends good things for automakers and tech companies hoping to launch limited commercial services, in some cases as early as 2019. Beyond engineers developing competent self-driving systems and lawmakers creating a regulatory climate that welcomes these cars, consumer acceptance is a central component in that push toward autonomous travel.

“It’s not making a car that drives itself and removing the steering wheel that’s the hard part,” says Grayson Brulte, a consultant developing automated-vehicle strategies and co-chair of an autonomous-vehicle task force set up by the city of Beverly Hills, California. “It’s convincing the public and building experiences that a consumer actually wants.”

With ongoing pilot projects in major U.S. cities such as San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and soon Atlanta, more Americans are being exposed to self-driving vehicles, and that gradual experience might be playing a part in the friendlier attitudes.

So, too, is the influx of semi-automated technology into today’s cars. As motorists get more acquainted with features such as automated emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, the experience eases their concerns about an autonomous future. AAA found that drivers who own vehicles equipped with these advanced driver-assist systems were 75 percent more likely to trust self-driving systems than those whose cars lack these features.

Yet the AAA survey, which derived its results from 1004 respondents contacted on their mobile or traditional phones, offered mixed sentiments on the adoption of these technologies. While experience with driver-assist systems made motorists more trusting of the fully autonomous systems still to come, only 51 percent of respondents wanted semi-autonomous technology in the next vehicle they buy or lease. That’s down from 59 percent in early 2017.

Broadly speaking, it appears that drivers remain leery of sharing the road with autonomous vehicles. In the survey, only 13 percent of drivers said they would feel safer sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle, while 46 percent actually feel less safe on shared roads. Thirty-seven percent feel the technology would make no difference, and 4 percent are unsure, according to the survey results.

Given that roads are shared with drunk drivers, who were responsible for 10,497 deaths on American roads in 2016; and with distracted drivers, who killed 3450 people in 2016; and with drowsy drivers, who killed 803 in 2016, according to the latest federal statistics, you might think sharing the road with automated systems that never drink, look at their smartphones or fall asleep, would be a reassuring proposition. But the expressed concern is a good reminder for businesses that have made road-safety improvement a compelling part of their message that their self-driving technology must show results once it hits the road.

Some companies are embracing that path. Asked in October about consumer reluctance to ride in self-driving vehicles, Waymo chief executive officer John Krafcik said he thought surveys like AAA’s and others on the topic offered encouraging results, considering that self-driving cars aren’t widely available to the public.

“We’ve read these surveys that say only half of drivers are comfortable,” he said. “We look at that and say: ‘That’s so cool. Half the drivers are already comfortable!’ It’s a reasonable starting place. And we have a role to play in that going forward.”

As featured in Car and Driver on January 25, 2018.

Volvo to supply Uber with up to 24,000 self-driving SUVs for taxi fleet

A fleet of self-driving Volvo vehicles operated by Uber Technologies Inc. could be ready for the road as early as 2019, marking the ride-hailing firm’s biggest push yet to roll out autonomous cars.

Volvo said Monday that it would sell Uber tens of thousands of luxury sport utility vehicles between 2019 and 2021 outfitted with the Swedish automaker’s safety, redundancy and core autonomous driving technologies. Uber will then add its own self-driving technology to the autonomous taxi fleet.

Jeff Miller, head of auto alliances at Uber, said in a statement that the agreement put Uber on a path toward “mass produced self-driving vehicles at scale.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that the fleet described in the agreement would number 24,000 vehicles, though an Uber spokesperson said the figure is a “general framework” and not necessarily the actual number of cars that will be purchased. It’s unclear when exactly the vehicles will hit the road.

Uber could benefit from Volvo’s reputation for safety, particularly since the San Francisco firm’s reputation has suffered amid accusations of bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination at the company.

Uber was also hit in February with an intellectual property lawsuit filed by Waymo, the self-driving car company founded by Google, in a case that goes to jury selection this month.

Waymo accuses Uber of unlawfully obtaining trade secrets around its laser-based sensing system after the ride-hailing firm bought Otto, a driverless trucking technology company founded by Anthony Levandowski. Waymo alleges Levandowski downloaded thousands of sensitive files when he left the company and brought them to Uber.

Those controversies, among others, culminated in Uber’s ousting of company Chief Executive Travis Kalanick and a blow to the company’s reputation.

“For autonomy to really work, you have to have trust,” said Grayson Brulte, co-founder and president of Brulte & Co. “Right now, Uber does not have a very trusting relationship with the public.”

The Volvo deal marks one of Uber’s first major business initiatives under new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the former chief of travel-booking firm Expedia. Uber, which is privately held and valued at just below $70 billion, is moving toward an anticipated 2019 initial public offering.

The “framework agreement,” which Volvo said was nonexclusive, builds on an earlier agreement from 2016 in which the two companies said they would co-develop autonomous vehicles. Volvo, which was acquired by Chinese automaker Geely Holding in 2010, said it also plans to use the base vehicle in the development of its own “independent autonomous car strategy.”

Volvo said it plans to release its own fully autonomous car in 2021.

It also plans to begin importing a new line of technology-laden Chinese cars under the Lynk & Co. brand into Volvo U.S. showrooms by the end of 2019. Geely, meanwhile, has technology partnerships throughout China.

This complicated alliance is typical of the nascent autonomous vehicle industry, in which automakers, tech companies and ride-hailing firms alike are trying to figure out the best combination of partnerships to reach the market first.

Earlier this year, Uber signed an agreement with Daimler in which the German automaker planned to introduce self-driving vehicles into Uber’s ride-hailing network. That deal, unlike the Volvo one, did not mention any vehicle purchase agreements.

Last year, Uber started offering rides in self-driving Ford Fusions to passengers in Pittsburgh as part of a test of Uber’s self-driving technology, though human operators still sit in the driver’s seat.

Ford has said it will start testing self-driving cars on the ride-hailing network of Uber’s rival, Lyft. And Lyft has signed partnerships with General Motors and Waymo.

“Everyone is hedging their bets so they don’t get left behind,” Brulte said. “There’s no real indicator of who’s going to win.”

It’s unclear how far along Uber’s driverless technology is at this point. While both Volvo and Ford have said they planned to have autonomous vehicles on the road by 2021, Uber has not disclosed when its cars will drive without human safety operators.

In March, a self-driving Uber SUV rolled onto its side after it was struck by a vehicle making a left turn at an intersection in Tempe, Ariz. Local police said the Uber SUV was obeying the law at the time, and that the driver in the other vehicle did not yield.

“Maybe they’re not the leader, but they’re near the front,” said Alain Kornhauser, an autonomous vehicle expert at Princeton University.

As part of the agreement, Volvo will supply the advanced XC90 SUVs over two years. In its current version, which includes some limited autonomous driving features, the car has a starting list price of about $47,000.

“It’s another example of how the [carmakers] are orienting themselves into an ecosystem, rather than having to be at the center,” said Alexandre Marian of AlixPartners, a consulting firm.

Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader, said she expected to see more of these kinds of partnerships between Silicon Valley companies and traditional automakers.

“It’s pretty clear that autonomous vehicles and sharing go hand in hand,” she said.

As featured in the November 20, 2017 edition of The Los Angeles Times