Anthony Levandowski, Jiajun Zhu and Dave Furguson, all formerly of Google Car, make big announcements
By coincidence we see two significant announcements today from people who were former leaders on the Google car project, now in their own companies.
The more significant is Nuro's automated delivery service which uses their unmanned road robots. The post claims it is the first unmanned delivery service, which is quite false, since robots from Starship (in which I am involved) as well as competitors like Kiwi, Robby, Marble and others have been running delivery service on sidewalks for some time now.
However, it is the first unmanned road based service of any kind, pending some details, which is much more significant. However, the vehicles have both remote operation and, for now, they are followed by chase cars which have some ability (not yet disclosed) to take over the robot or cause it to shut down. Depending on the quality of the radio link to the robot, that's like having a safety driver -- you could even give the passenger in the chase car a VR headset so it would seem like they were sitting in the robot, if it would not make them sick.
Deliverbots present an easier problem than passenger robocars. They can limit themselves to easier and slower roads. Their cargo is no anxious or in the type of hurry humans get into. You can't kill your cargo, though you must still never hit other people. You can limit your travels to where radio signals are good so that remote operators can always solve problems. No signal down that street? Just don't go down that street, at least for now.
That's why we can see this first.
Anthony Levandowski returns
I know Anthony well, so I don't comment about him a great deal. I am both surprised an d unsurprised to see him announce He's back with a truck co-pilot with more details in a Guardian article about a cross-country trip with no disengagements using no LIDAR.
Anthony devoted 6 years of his efforts to LIDAR, and his efforts to create a LIDAR at Uber via Otto were the subject of a famous lawsuit that brought down him, Otto and parts of Uber. Today he reverses himself and declares, like Elon Musk, that LIDAR is indeed a crutch. He's building a $5,000 "co-pilot" system to sell to truckers to make their job easier, and doing almost all of it with neural networks.
Anthony faces an unusual problem. In a lot of the industry, his name is poison because of the past events, whether allegations are true or not. This makes it unlikely a company he leads could sell to major OEMs or get investment from major VCs. However, he can sell to individuals, such as truck drivers.
There are many small startups trying to make the AI-not-LIDAR approach work. Whether it is good to make an autopilot that way depends on your view of autopilots. From a technological standpoint, they can do it. The harder questions revolve around what the human does in concert with the tool -- do they become complacent or stay safe? Do their driving patterns change in a way that is good or bad? Tesla says they get better, but the jury is still out. My anecdotal experience is that after driving with autopilot (or even adaptive cruise control) for a while, when I switch off, I need to consciously remember that I am now in charge of the brakes. The wheel is not a problem. But we've had ACC for a long time without much trouble.