The automation war is on. This isn’t hyperbole; this is an all-out war between tech companies and engineers to become the fastest, earliest and best companies in the field of autonomous vehicles.
The explosion of automation in driving is growing phenomenally in every part of the world. Alphabet, Tesla, Uber, Lyft, and Waymo are embroiled in a seven trillion dollar industry race that is set to change the world as we know it. The numbers involved with VC funding of automated vehicles is staggering, and from Silicon Valley to Shanghai, the competition is fierce. There are currently 25 companies in the automation industry valued at over 50 million, with Zoox currently leading with a staggering 290 million valuation. The demand and rise of autonomous vehicles are only going to increase in the next decade.
Let’s take a look at how the leaders of automation are dealing with the first major challenge of the fourth industrial revolution.
While the US seems to be center of autonomous testing and home of some of the biggest names in automation, there has been an equally large movement towards automation in Asia. China, in particular, is doing exceptionally well in automation with cities already opening specific lanes for autonomous vehicle testing. Interestingly the city where the first lane opened, Hangzhou, is the home of giants Alibaba who have been testing autonomous vehicles frequently and recently announced they are ready for open road testing. China has set an aggressive goal for developing “intelligent vehicles,” which it defines as cars that can fully or partially drive themselves—in January it said it wants those cars to make up half of the new vehicles on the roads by 2020.
In Asia, its reported that nearly every major tech firm is throwing their cash towards autonomous vehicles. It’s no longer just tech firms, as major automotive companies are planning to try and bring their autonomous lines of vehicles in the next 18 months. This includes some giants on each continent preparing for the future, GM Motors in the united states, Toyota in Asia and BMW in Europe have all spoken up for their lines of autonomous vehicles.
Across Europe, Geneva has become the center of the testing and legislation to bring autonomous vehicles safely into European cities with minimum interference. The researchers propose to develop, test and validate autonomous vehicle services, integrated into the conventional public transport network, meeting the expectations of different user groups.
Tesla, who have become the icons of automation, and produced possibly the most likable and engaging CEOs the tech industry has ever produced. Tesla has gone through some very rough times in the last few months. Multiple problems with production not meeting industry expectations, the widely reported problems with the autopilot on the model X and also the exit of several key members of staff.
In the last three months, Tesla lost their autopilot chief Jim Keller, their global president of sales Jon McNeill departed to arrive only at rivals Lyft. Tesla earlier this month also lost executive Matt Schwall, who served as director of field performance engineering, to immediately arrive on Waymos safety team. Thankfully, for Tesla, automated cars are not the only sector they are involved with as The Boring Company and Space X are relatively unchallenged in their particular fields and have remained unscathed in the fallout from the companies other activities.
Uber hasn’t exactly had a great few months either. The company is currently facing some extremely damaging publicity. The California Superior Court is currently filing a lawsuit against the company brought by a former software engineer that claims the company retaliated against her after she reported discrimination and sexual harassment. Worse still, the lawsuit goes into painful detail to explain that this was not just an isolated incident, but, was rather indicative of a pervasively unprofessional environment where excessive drinking and sexual harassment were common. Uber’s workplace “was permeated with degrading, marginalizing, discriminatory and sexually harassing conduct toward women.”
If this sounds familiar, its because it sadly is, as the now infamous blog post from Susan Fowler documenting similar conduct emerged one year ago, which resulted in the departure of then CEO Travis Kalanick. Uber also had a publicity nightmare with the fatal crash of one of its self-driving cars, killing a pedestrian in March. The incident forced Uber to suspend its autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona and resulted in an investigation from the NTSB. The conclusions of this investigation are also extremely damning of Uber, as it indicated a slew of flaws in their system, which essentially disabled the safety features of the vehicle while in autonomous mode. To make matters worse not only was the emergency brake unable to be used while in autonomous mode, but there are also no means available for the driver to be warned of any oncoming hazards.
Conversely, despite the pr disasters, Uber sees its best financial year so far, “We are off to a terrific start in 2018, with our rides business beating internal plan and continuing to grow at healthy rates, while we significantly reduce our losses and maintain our leadership position around the world.”. The company has laid out ambitious plans for expansion into aerial taxis, an ambitious project that seems to be focused on taking public transport to previously unthinkable heights. While implementing even the first stage of this project is years away it will certainly be the benchmark for other companies to aim for.
Rivals Lyft is branching out to the electronic scooter phenomenon, while simultaneously committing to increasing their spending on their drivers and increasing operating hours. Apple has increased their number of autonomous vehicles that they are now the second largest company in the autonomous vehicle race after Waymo with their active number of vehicles in the United States. Waymo is also the first tech company to show how they are trying to improve their technology behind autonomous vehicles. Waymo’s engineers are modeling not only how cars recognize objects in the road, for example, but how human behavior affects how cars should behave. And they’re using deep learning to interpret, predict, and respond to data accrued from its 6 million miles driven on public roads and 5 billion driven in simulation.
Whether automation takes ten or twenty years to become the dominant force in transportation, one thing is becoming increasingly clear, the safety concerns with autopilot driving must be addressed comprehensively. In the spirit of moving automation forwards, the race for new technology has resulted in a search for the best possible forms of mapping obstacles, dangers and pedestrians accurately. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a new system that allows self-driving cars to drive on roads they’ve never been on before without 3D maps. Called MapLite, the system combines simple GPS data that you’d find on Google Maps with a series of sensors that observe the road conditions.
Perhaps, the most tangible solution to safety concerns is to look at the situation from a middle ground. Rather than fearing autonomous vehicles, due to their perceived lack of safety, is to compare how safe autonomous vehicles are to standard automobiles. If the two compared side by side a picture emerges that should be expected, human-driven cars are inherently more dangerous because of human error. Automation is designed to remove the dangers of human error, and maybe increase the safety of the roads for all users, but it will require either a timeframe where the technology evolves dramatically or until the time when no more human-driven cars remain.