Waymo has a big lead in driverless cars—but here’s how it could lose it

Waymo has long had a sizable lead in self-driving technology, and recent reports indicate that Larry Page, CEO of Waymo parent company Alphabet, is determined not to let it slip away. According to The Information’s Amir Efrati, Waymo CEO John Krafcik is under pressure to launch a commercial service in the Phoenix metro area as soon as this fall.

But at a Monday event with reporters at Waymo’s Castle testing grounds in California’s Central Valley, Krafcik was non-committal about the company’s launch plans. In fact, he cast doubt on whether a driverless taxi service would even be Waymo’s first product, as almost everyone has assumed it would be.

“We’ll have to see,” Krafcik said, noting that the company was also working on self-driving truck technology. “We’re also considering working directly with cities.”

Read 41 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Report: Waymo aiming to launch commercial driverless service this year

Real driverless cars could come to the Phoenix area this year, according to a Monday report from The Information’s Amir Efrati. Two anonymous sources have told Efrati that Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, is preparing to launch “a commercial ride-sharing service powered by self-driving vehicles with no human ‘safety’ drivers as soon as this fall.”

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that Waymo will hit this ambitious target. But it’s a sign that Waymo believes its technology is very close to being ready for commercial use. And it suggests that Waymo is likely to introduce a fully driverless car network in 2018 if it doesn’t do so in the remaining months of 2017.

Waymo plans to launch first in the Phoenix suburbs

Efrati reports that Waymo CEO John Krafcik faces pressure from his boss, Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page, to transform Waymo’s impressive self-driving technology into a shipping product. Page had been pushing for a launch by the end of 2016. But a major deal with Ford to produce the necessary vehicles fell through, forcing Waymo to scramble and sign a smaller deal with Fiat Chrysler to supply minivans.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Intel reveals it has been working with Google on self-driving cars since 2009

Self-driving cars have Silicon Valley salivating. Something of a gold rush is going on right now, as everyone is trying to perfect the technology that could banish gridlock and traffic casualties once and for all. Google started working on the problem back in 2009, then in 2016 spun the project out as a company in its own right called Waymo. Today, we learned something new about the Waymo project: it’s powered by Intel.

The chip-maker publicly stated today that it has been partnering with Waymo since 2009. Intel has been supplying Xeon processors, Arria field programmable gate arrays (for machine vision), and gigabit ethernet solutions (to let all the various components talk to each other).

“With three million miles of real-world driving, Waymo cars with Intel technology inside have already processed more self-driving car miles than any other autonomous fleet on US roads,” wrote Intel CEO Brian Krzanich in a blog post announcing the news.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

I sat in the seat suit of Ford’s fake self-driving car

Last month we covered a “driverless” car roaming Virginia streets that turned out to really just be a normal car with the driver hidden inside a seat suit. Today, I got a chance to try the seat suit out for myself. You can’t see my face, but this is a picture of me giving the thumbs-up sign from inside the suit.

The research was led by Andy Schaudt, a researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, in partnership with Ford. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me take a test drive. Schaudt told me that they put their drivers through hours of training before letting them loose on public roads, and there wasn’t time to give me the necessary training.

Still, just from sitting in the seat, I could tell that driving the vehicle would be awkward. The suit is designed for the driver’s arms to rest on his or her lap, gripping the steering wheel from below. Lifting my arms would cause the flimsy front of the suit to fold, ruining the illusion. So drivers were trained to turn the wheel gingerly while keeping their arms near the bottom. The study also added an extension to the turn signal so drivers could reach it without raising their arms.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Lyft’s strategy: Be the Android of the self-driving car business

On Thursday, Lyft announced a new self-driving car partnership with the Mountain View-based startup Drive.ai. In the coming months, Lyft customers in San Francisco will occasionally have their hails answered by Drive’s experimental self-driving cars—albeit with a safety driver in the front seat.

On its own, this isn’t huge news. Drive.ai is not a well-known company and the deal will initially involve only a handful of cars. But the announcement illustrates how Lyft is positioning itself to win the autonomous vehicle wars of the coming decade.

Tesla and Uber want to be the Apple of self-driving cars

Many experts expect that ride-sharing will be a major part of the self-driving car business. With no need to pay drivers, ride-sharing services can be a lot more affordable than taxis are today. And a ride-sharing approach will allow companies more flexibility in when, where, and how they roll out self-driving technology.

Read 17 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Hacking street signs with stickers could confuse self-driving cars

Progress in the field of machine vision is one of the most important factors in the rise of the self-driving car. An autonomous vehicle has to be able to sense its environment and react appropriately. Free space has to be calculated, solid objects avoided, and any and all of the instructions we helpfully leave everywhere—painted on the tarmac or posted on signs—have to be obeyed.

Deep neural networks turned out to be pretty good at classifying images, but it’s still worth remembering that the process is quite unlike the way humans identify images, even if the end results are fairly similar. I was reminded of that once again this morning when reading about a method of spoofing road signs. It’s a technique that just looks like street art to you or me, but it completely changes the meaning of a stop sign to the machine reading it.

No actual self-driving cars were harmed in this study

First off, it’s important to note that the paper is a proof-of-concept; no actual automotive-grade machine vision systems were used in the test. Covering your local stop signs in strips of black and white tape is not going to lead to a sudden spate of car crashes today. Ivan Evtimov—a grad student at the University of Washington—and some colleagues first trained a deep neural network to recognize different US road signs. Then, they created an algorithm that generated changes to the signs that human eyes find innocuous, but which changed the meaning when a sign was read by the AI classifier they just trained.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Waymo built a fake city in California to test self-driving cars

Google used to keep most details about its self-driving car program under wraps. But in the last few months, the self-driving car team—now a separate subsidiary called Waymo—has been making a concerted effort to open up and share key details with high-profile media outlets.

In May, Waymo revealed key details of its latest self-driving car design to Bloomberg as part of the rollout of a new program that ferries ordinary passengers around in Phoenix. Now The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal has a new piece revealing important details about Waymo’s extensive infrastructure for testing self-driving cars.

Madrigal reports on two Waymo projects that haven’t been previously made public. One is an extensive virtual city in the California desert 100 miles east of Silicon Valley. Named Castle after the former Castle Air Force Base, the facility hosts a network of private roads for testing self-driving vehicles. It’s a proprietary cousin of Mcity, the open vehicle testing facility we visited in 2015. At the Castle facility, Waymo builds replicas of real intersections—like a two-lane roundabout in Texas—that have given Waymo cars trouble.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Fiat Chrysler, BMW, and Intel announce plans to build self-driving tech

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is joining forces with BMW and Intel to develop self-driving car technology, the company announced on Wednesday. FCA is joining an existing alliance between BMW and Intel that also included Mobileye, the self-driving technology company Intel announced it was acquiring in March.

FCA is the smallest of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, and its approach to the self-driving car revolution has been less ambitious than rivals GM and Ford. GM paid $1 billion for self-driving car startup Cruise last year and is hoping to develop its own self-driving car technology. Ford invested $1 billion in the self-driving car startup Argo AI earlier this year and has also opened a technology subsidiary in Silicon Valley.

By contrast, FCA seems content to rely more on partners to supply the self-driving technology it will need to make its vehicles competitive in the coming decade.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments