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Robocar Year in Review for 2018

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The ironic thing is there's comparatively little
to learn from the crash damage.

In spite of what most are writing, it was a year of much progress.

A number of other summaries of 2018 in robocars have called it a bad year, the year it all went south, even the year the public realized that robocars will never come.

In fact, 2018 was the year the field reached a new level of maturity, as its warts began to show, and we saw the first missteps (minor and major) and the long anticipated popping of some of the hype.

As predicted by Gartner's famous "hype cycle" any highly-hyped technology goes through a "trough of disillusionment" after the initial surge. I see several reasons why the trough is happening now:

  • The public is starting to understand some realities which have not been very well conveyed to them, though they were known by the major teams:
    • This is a very hard task
    • It is geographic in nature, due to the need of mapping and local driving rules, and so it begins in limited areas and grows from there.
    • The amount of QA needed to get to unmanned operation is immense, and if you have money, there is no reason to remove safety drivers until you're quite sure.
    • The so called "level 5" isn't on any serious roadmap, and may never happen
  • It's very typical in software for dates to slip. People predict when they hope they can make a target, which is really the beginning of the time window in their estimate.
  • Some people, such as Elon Musk, have made irresponsibly optimistic predictions, leading the public to imagine their drive-everywhere robocar is coming next year.
  • If you follow Gartner's literal curve, they had robocars at the top in 2015. So the trough doesn't really even need a reason. But I think there will be multiple peaks and troughs.

In reality, the plan at Waymo and many other companies has always been to build a car that serves a limited set of streets -- a small set of easy streets -- at the start, and then starts growing the network of streets, and eventually towns with streets, as time goes buy.

There is going to be a big surge once the technology reaches a level where the remaining problems are no longer technological as logistic. That is to say, when the barrier to expanding to new streets and cities is the detailed work of mapping those streets, learning the local rules and working with local governments. That's when the "land rush" happens. The limiting factor there is time and talent more than it's money.

But none of that happens until the cars are ready for deployment, and until they are, they will be tested as prototypes with safety drivers in them. Even the first prototype services, like Waymo's and Zoox's and others, will have safety drivers in them.

The Uber fatality -- the top story of the year

No question the big story this year was the death of Elaine Herzberg as the result of a compound series of errors and bad practices at Uber. The story is notable for many reasons, including of course how it happened, but also in the public's reaction. For a long time, I've been assured by many skeptics that the first death would mean the end of the robocar dream. The public actually thinks the first deaths were in Teslas (they weren't) and Tesla stock went up after they took place. The Uber fatality was real, and did teach us that teams are capable of more negligence than I had hoped. While it did scale up public distrust, and Uber did shut down their program for a least a year, the overall effect still seems modest. (The larger effect will be much greater intolerance for the next fatality, the one that would have been the first.)

Here's some of my many posts on Uber this year:

Story #2 -- Waymo's non-launch

Waymo remains the clear leader in the field, so the next top story has to be about them, but sadly it's the story of their first miss -- promising to launch in 2018 and feeling forced to do a "launch" that was really just a formalization of existing activity. I believe that Uber is partly to blame here, in that it did use up a lot of the public's tolerance for errors, especially in the Phoenix area. Waymo soft launches in Phoenix, but...

The better story for Waymo, however, was their first totally unmanned operations earlier in the year. This also disappointed people because these unmanned operations were on a much more limited scale than people originally imagined, but it's still a major milestone. It means Waymo's team convinced the lawyers and board that the systems were good enough to take this risk, even if only in a limited area. Waymo goes totally unmanned, arbitration and other news

Flying Cars

This was also the year that "flying cars" also known as e-VTOL aircraft, "took off." It's now clear the engineering problems are close to solved, though many social and logistic problems remain. These vehicles are at the stage robocars were 10 years ago, and the excitement is building. Sebastian Thrun, the modern "father of self-driving cars" and the man who first got me excited about them, has switched his efforts to flying. I'll be writing more on this in the coming year.

Other notable news

In chronological order, not order of importance

My essays on the issues

The main focus of this site are my essays on the issues and future of robocars. Here are the ones from this year I think you will find most valuable.

Comments

Yabbut, the hype is coming, directly or indirectly, from the companies developing these cars. So when you tell me that we would be fools to believe this obvious pack of lies, I on the one hand nod in agreement. This is what I have been saying all along. But I also recall that I was assured that I am a blind fool Luddite for not believing the hype. Often I am hearing these two things from the same people.

As for level 5 never happening, let us translate level 4 into practical realities: it only works on major highways and in areas wealthy enough to justify the micro-mapping needed to make it work. (I am skeptical even of this: northeastern cities laid out with horse carts in mind are a different matter from southwestern cities with good weather and wide roads. But let this pass.) The hype was quite explicit that we would be getting cars with no pedals or steering wheel. At level 4, this only works as a niche product such as a taxi that only operates within the limits of the micromapped part of town. This is something, but a whole lot less than we were led to expect, and certainly not anything that will result in the disappearance of the individually owned vehicle.

Actually, I've seen very little hype from the top companies, other than Tesla. They've been generally conservative, not promising many dates, or making only vague promises about the dates they name. I think it is the public that has taken "Waymo says it will have a service in 2018" to mean "I will be riding in a Waymo in my town in 2019."

Areas don't need to be that wealthy to justify the mapping. Even should it cost $1,000/mile to map a road, it costs $1M/mile to build it. I don't think it will cost $1,000/mile to map a road, though. But if it did, drive it 10,000 times and it's 10 cents/drive -- more than you like but affordable. 10,000 times is only 300 times/day if it takes a year.

The cars with no wheel -- only shown by Waymo, Cruise and Zoox -- are not hype. For Waymo, it was a challenge to themselves in a prototype never intended to be their final vehicle. Cruise is yet to produce that vehicle, it is their vision of the future. Zoox says almost nothing to the public.

What vendor or team said the disappearance of the individually owned vehicle was coming?

I became especially excited about Tesla this year. Being able to travel long distances while sleeping or working for about $0.05/mile is very exciting, and I finally think I may see it in my lifetime.

I suppose robotaxis might accomplish it too. Hopefully one of them will come out with an "unlimited" plan with similar pricing to direct ownership (monthly fee plus very low per-mile cost). I'd love to do a lot more traveling despite not being able to get a lot of back-to-back days off work.

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