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Driverless Car Summit 2013 Part 1 - Fear of Google

This week I attended AUVSI’s “Driverless Car Summit” in Detroit. This year’s event, the third, featured a bigger crowd and a decent program, and will generate more than one post.

I would hardly call it a theme, but two speakers expressed fairly negative comments about Google’s efforts, raising some interesting subjects. (As an important disclaimer, the Google car team is a consulting client of mine, but I am not their spokesman and the views here do not represent Google’s views.)

The keynote address came from Bryan Reimer of MIT, and generated the most press coverage and debate, though the recent NHTSA guidelines also created a stir.

Reimer’s main concern: Google is testing on public streets instead of a test track. As such it is taking the risk of a fatal accident, from which the blowback could be so large it stifles the field for many years. Car companies historically have done extensive test track work before going out on real streets. I viewed Reimer’s call as one for near perfection before there is public deployment.

There is a U-shaped curve of risk here. Indeed, a vendor who takes too many risks may cause an accident that generates enough backlash to slow down the field, and thus delay not just their own efforts, but an important life-saving technology. On the other hand, a quest for perfection attempts what seems today to be impossible, and as such also delays deployment for many years, while carnage continues on the roads.

As such there is a “Goldilocks” point in the middle, with the right amount of risk to maximize the widescale deployment of robocars that drive more safely than people. And there can be legitimate argument about where that is.

Reimer also expressed concern that as automation increases, human skill decreases, and so you actually start needing more explicit training, not less. He is as such concerned with the efforts to make what NHTSA calls “level 2” systems (hands off, but eyes on the road) as well as “level 3” systems (eyes off the road but you may be called upon to drive in certain situations.) He fears that it could be dangerous to hand driving off to people who now don’t do it very often, and that stories from aviation bear this out. This is a valid point, and in a later post I will discuss the risks of the level-2 “super cruise” systems.

Maarten Sierhuis, who is running Nissan’s new research lab (where I will be giving a talk on the future of robocars this Thursday, by the way) issued immediate disagreement on the question of test tracks. His background at NASA has taught him that you “fly where you train and train where you fly” — there is no substitute for real world testing if you want to build a safe product. One must suspect Google agrees — it’s not as if they couldn’t afford a test track. The various automakers are also all doing public road testing, though not as much as Google. Jan Becker of Bosch reported their vehicle had only done “thousands” of public miles. (Google reported a 500,000 mile count earlier this year.)

Heinz Mattern, research and development manager for Valeo (which is a leading maker of self-parking systems) went even further, starting off his talk by declaring that “Google is the enemy.” When asked about this, he did not want to go much further but asked, “why aren’t they here? (at the conference)” There was one Google team employee at the conference, but not speaking, and I’m not am employee or rep. It was pointed out that Chris Urmson, chief engineer of the Google team, had spoken at the prior conferences.  read more »