Everyone in Silicon Valley knows the story of Xerox inventing the modern personal computer in the 1970s and then failing to commercialize it effectively. Yet one of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies, Google’s Alphabet, appears to be repeating Xerox’s mistake with its self-driving car program.
Xerox launched its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1970. By 1975, its researchers had invented a personal computer with a graphical user interface that was almost a decade ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the commercial version of this technology wasn’t released until 1981 and proved to be an expensive flop. Two much younger companies—Apple and Microsoft—co-opted many of Xerox’s ideas and wound up dominating the industry.
Google’s self-driving car program, created in 2009, appears to be on a similar trajectory. By October 2015, Google was confident enough in its technology to put a blind man into one of its cars for a solo ride in Austin, Texas.
In November 2017, Waymo announced that it would start taking drivers out of the driver’s seat of its prototype self-driving vehicles. A year later, Waymo still seems to be far away from completing that process.
In fact, last week the Information’s Amir Efrati reported that Waymo may actually have moved backward recently.
“Within the past month or so, due to concerns about safety, the Alphabet company put so-called safety drivers back behind the wheel of its most advanced prototypes, ending a year-long period in which those people generally sat in the passenger or back seat,” Efrati wrote.
Arlington, Texas, has the dubious distinction of being the largest American city without a conventional bus system. Sandwiched between Dallas and Fort Worth, the town of nearly 400,000 people launched a single bus line called the MAX in 2013—but even that got shut down last year.
But just as some developing countries have leapfrogged past landline telephones in favor of cellular technology, Arlington is trying to turn its status as a mass-transit laggard into an advantage by embracing cutting-edge transportation technologies.
Last week, the city announced a new partnership with the self-driving car startup Drive.ai. Starting in October, free Drive.ai shuttles will circulate on public streets in Arlington’s Entertainment District, past a Six Flags amusement park and the stadiums where the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers play.
Waymo is about to launch a pilot program to explore how self-driving cars can be used in combination with public transit, the Google self-driving car unit announced on Tuesday. Starting in August, employees of Valley Metro, the agency that operates the Phoenix area’s bus and light rail systems, will be able to get Waymo rides to their nearest bus or light rail stop.
Eventually, Waymo hopes to open this service up to the general public, providing first- and last-mile service for customers who want to use transit but aren’t quite close enough to walk to the nearest stop.
Two visions for transit in a driverless future
An important question about the rise of self-driving cars is whether the technology will complement conventional public transit or replace it. Back in May, we talked to Thomas Bamonte, an official at the Central Texas Council of Governments. The council has been involved in self-driving transit projects in Texas, including the startup Drive.ai’s first shuttle service in the Dallas suburb of Frisco.
The bedroom community of Frisco, Texas might seem like an unusual place to find a self-driving vehicle. But here in this city of nearly 175,000 people, there are seven.
And as of Monday, they’re available for the public to use within a specific sector of the city that has a concentration of retail, entertainment venues and office space.
Drive.ai, an autonomous vehicle startup, launched the self-driving on-demand service Monday that will cover a two-mile route. The service will be operated in conjunction with Frisco TMA, a public-private partnership focused on “last-mile” transportation options. People within this geographic zone can hail a ride using a smartphone app.
Even in their small numbers, the modified Nissan NV200s will be hard to miss. The self-driving vehicles are painted a bright orange with two swooping blue lines — with the words “self-driving vehicle” and “Drive.ai” set in white.
The vehicles, which have been given distinctly human names like Anna, Emma, Bob, Fred and Carl, are equipped with LED screens on the hood and rear, and above the front tires, which will display messages as well as the vehicle’s name to pedestrians.
This isn’t a business enterprise just yet. The service, which is considered a pilot project, is free and will be operational for six months. The program will begin with fixed pick-up and drop-off locations around HALL Park and The Star and then will expand into Frisco Station.
Conway Chen, Drive.ai’s vice president of business strategy, emphasized to TechCrunch that this is designed as an on-demand service, and not a shuttle. When the vehicles are not being used they won’t just keep circling the route, which could cause more traffic congestion, Chen said. Instead they will be able to park along the route.
In the weeks since announcing plans to launch in Frisco, Drive.ai has been tweaking the service, its schedule as well as racking up miles on the road and in simulation. The company said it has logged 1 million simulated miles on its Frisco route. In its simulation, Drive.ai replicates scenarios — taken from its driving logs — the vehicles encountered while driving the route, as well as creating its own scenarios.
As Drive.ai explains in a post on Medium: “It’s like a high tech version of SimCity, where we design the world, and can then replay events and modify their components to explore how our technology responds in unique scenarios. This is a good place to start for the more common things that people do on the roads: navigating tricky intersections, right-of-way decisions, and observing the behaviors of cyclists and pedestrians.”
The service, which will operate weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., will initially have a safety driver behind the wheel. That person will eventually move to a passenger seat and take on a chaperone role, whose primary responsibility will be to answer questions and make riders comfortable. At some point, Drive.ai will remove the employee from the vehicle completely.
The company also has a remote monitoring feature, called “telechoice,” that allows a human operator to see everything in real-time that the self-driving vehicle can see using HD cameras.
Telechoice is not like the full remote control teleoperation that startup Phantom Auto provides. The telechoice operator can control basic functions like braking, but it cannot take full control of the vehicle or make it accelerate. With Drive.ai’s feature, if “Bob” the self-driving vehicle struggles with a certain situation on the road, the telechoice operator can help it make the right decision.
There’s near-universal agreement that Google spinoff Waymo is the leading company in the driverless-vehicle business. And Waymo’s strategy for developing fully driverless cars is very expensive. Before launching a commercial driverless car service, Waymo needs to convince itself—and the world—that its cars will be at least as safe as human drivers.
That has meant racking up millions of test miles on public roads, a process that has taken several years and cost Waymo well over $1 billion.
Waymo’s more established competitors—including Uber, GM’s Cruise, and the Ford-aligned Argo.ai—are pursuing a similar strategy. But a number of startups is also trying to build fully autonomous cars. And many of these companies simply don’t have the money it takes to follow Waymo’s lead. They need a different strategy—one that allows them to bring a product to market more quickly and at lower cost.
When people think about self-driving cars, they naturally think about, well, cars. They imagine a future where they buy a new car that has a “self drive” button that takes them wherever they want to go.
That will happen eventually. But the impact of self-driving technology is likely to be much broader than that. Our roads are full of trucks, taxis, buses, shuttles, delivery vans, and more—all of these vehicles will have self-driving equivalents within a decade or two.
The advent of self-driving technology will transform the design possibilities for all sorts of vehicles, giving rise to new vehicle categories that don’t exist now, and others that straddle the line between existing categories. It will also change the economics of transportation and delivery services, making on-demand delivery a much faster, cheaper, and more convenient option.
Drive.ai, the company that’s gearing up to launch an autonomous ride-hailing pilot in Frisco, Texas, just released a video showing off its driverless capabilities. Drive.ai’s service will initially launch with safety drivers in July, but the goal is to ultimately operate the ride-hailing platform without a driver behind the wheel.
In the video below, you can see a Drive.ai-powered car navigate both public and private roads without even a safety driver. On the lower-right-hand corner, you can see an augmented reality visualization that shows how the perception system works to identify cars, pedestrians, cyclists and other objects.
Before the July launch, Drive.ai will be collecting data along the routes and working with the city to educate people about self-driving technology. During this trial period, which starts in July and will run for six months, the service will be limited to employees, residents and patrons of Hall properties. Down the road, the goal is to open up the program to all residents of Frisco.