Google Accidents, Baidu Cars, Startups and more news roundup


2 months mostly on the road, so here's a roundup of the "real" news stories in the field.

Google begins PR campaign and talks about accidents

As the world's most famous company, Google doesn't need to seek press and the Chauffeur project has kept fairly quiet, but it just opened a new web site which will feature monthly reports on the status of the project. The first report gives details of all the accidents in the project's history, which we discussed earlier. A new one just took place in the last month, but like the others, it did not involve the self-driving software. Google's cars continue to not cause any accidents, though they have been at the receiving end of a modestly high number of impacts, perhaps because they are a bit unusual.

The zero at-fault accident number is both impressive, and possibly involves a bit of luck. Perhaps it even raises unrealistic expectations of perfection, because I believe there will be at-fault accidents in the future for both Google and other teams. Most teams, when they were first building their vehicles, had minor accidents where cars hit curbs or obstacles on test tracks, but the track records of almost all teams since then are surprisingly good. One way that's not luck, of course, is the presence of safety drivers ready to take the controls if something goes wrong. They are trained and experienced, though some day, being human, some of them will make mistakes.

Baidu to build a prototype

In November I gave a "Big Talk" for Baidu in Beijing on cars. Perhaps there is something about search engines because they have made announcements about their own project. Like Google, Baidu has expertise in mapping and various AI techniques, including the advice of Andrew Ng, whose career holds many parallels to that of Sebastian Thrun who started Google's project. (Though based on my brief conversations with Andrew I don't think he's directly involved.)

Virginia opens test roads

The state of Virginia has designated 70 miles of roads for robocar testing. That's a good start for testing by those working in that state, but it skirts what to me is a dangerous idea -- the thought that there would be "special" roads for robocars designated by states or road authorities. The fantastic lesson of the Darpa grand challenges was the idea that the infrastructure remains stupid and the car becomes smart, so that the car can go anywhere once its builders are satisfied it can handle that road. So it's OK to test on a limited set of roads but it's also vital to test in as many situations as you can, so you need to get off that set of roads as soon as you can.

Zoox startup un-stealthed

Zoox is probably the first funded startup working on a real, fully automated robocar. They were recently funded by DFJ ventures and set up shop in rented space at the SLAC linear accelerator lab. Zoox was begun by Tim Kentley-Klay, a designer and entrepreneur from Australia, and he later joined forces with Jesse Levinson, a top researcher from Stanford's self-driving car projects.

I've known about Zoox since it begain and had many discussions. They first got some attention a while back with Tim's designs, which are quite different from typical car designs, and presume a fully functional robocar -- the designs feature no controls for the humans, and don't even have a windshield to see forward in some cases. (Indeed, they don't have a "forward" since an essential part of the design is to be symmetrical and move equally well in both directions, avoiding the need for some twists and turns.) I like many elements of the Zoox vision, though in fact I think it is even more ambitious than Google's, at least from a car design standpoint, which is quite audacious in a world where most of the players think Google is going too far.

You can see details in this report on Zoox from IEEE. I haven't reported on Zoox under FrieNDA courtesy -- in fact the early consultations with "Singularity University" described in the article are actually discussions with me.

Zoox is not the first small startup. Kyle Haight's "Cruise" has been at it a while aiming at a much less ambitious supervised product, and truck platooning company Peleton has even simpler goals, but expect to see more startups enter the fray and fight with the big boys in the year to come.

Mercedes E Class

Speaking of supervised cruising, the report is that the 2016 Mercedes E Class will offer highway speed cruising in the USA. This has been on offer in Europe in the past. As I wrote earlier, I am less enthused about supervised cruising products and think they will not do tremendously well. Tesla's update to offer the same in their cars will probably get the most attention.


The press continue to get super excited about things that aren't real. In spite of many reports, Uber does not yet have a car cruising the streets of Pittsburgh, though there is reality to the report that Uber has "poached" a large fraction of the robotics research crew from CMU.

In addition, many stories reported that Tesla had "solved" the liability problem of robocars through the design of their lane change system. In their system (and in several other discussed designs -- they did not come up with this) the car won't change lanes until the human signals it is OK to do so, usually by something like hitting the turn signal indicator. The Tesla plan is for a supervised car, and in a supervised car all liability is already supposed to go to the human supervisor.

Changing lanes safely is surprisingly challenging, because there is always the chance somebody is zooming up behind you at a rather rapid rate of speed. That's common merging into a carpool lane, or on German autobahn trips. Most supervised cars have only forward sensing, but to change lanes safely you need to notice a car coming up fast from behind you, and you need to see it quite a distance away. This requires special sensors, such as rear radars, which most cars don't have. So the solution of having the human check the mirrors works well for now.

More and more stories keep getting excited by "connected car" technology, in particular V2V communications using DSRC. They even write that these technologies are essential for robocars, and it gets scary when people like the transportation secretary say this. I wish the press covering this would take the simple step of asking the top teams who are working on robocars whether they plan to depend on, or even make early use of vehicle to vehicle communications. They will find out the answers will range form "no, not really" to a few vague instances of "yes, someday" from car companies who made corporate support commitments to V2V. The engineers don't actually think they will find the technology crucial. The fact that the people actually building robocars have only a mild interest, if any, in V2V, while the people who staked their careers on V2V insist it's essential should maybe suggest to the press that the truth is not quite what they are told.


Compared to what existed during the 19th century, aren't *all* paved roads specialty roads? I mean, the state of roadway art before then was probably cobblestone, and more likely it was a dirt track with two ruts the width of a standard cart wheelbase. A typical modern car might be able to cruise at 80 miles an hour, but it requires quite extensive ground preparation before that can happen.

You're right that there's a lot more intelligence involved in roads that allow autonomous vehicle operation, but it's not ahistorical to suggest that roads be built to meet the limitations of the vehicles.

Nobody built a car that could only operate on a paved road. They might prefer them and go faster on them, but they can go on them. There are off-road only vehicles but they are the unusual exception, and it's more about being street legal than being unable to drive on that road.

The good news: Google's Robocar has now passed the one-million mile mark. The bad news: Google's human driver has accumulated 700,000 miles. To this observer, this is distressing news. I thought that the human was rarely, if ever involved - his or her only purpose being to satisfy the legal requirement that the human be in the loop. Turns out, though, with close to half the driving been done by 'us', RoboCar may not quite be what it's cracked up to be.

How much for instance, of the trip to Taco Bell did the blind dude actually take under bot control. And how blind was he? For instance, I was legally blind, but Uncle Sam allowed me to fly airplanes, albeit with 'corrective lenses'.

All of which, Brad, should bring you to the question "When does the human really take over?" If it's any time things start or even look like they're going to get remotely challenging - which is how it appears - that's really, really bad news for RoboCar, because that means that Google down-graded its product from fully-autonomous to 'driver assist' - slightly above cruise and lane-keeping, but not a lot more.

You need to either get an interview with the human or a look at the book of words - preferably both - and get back to us on what this really means, because the way I see it, Google's admission just set the notion of DL back a decade.

Especially in the early days of the program, it was largely highway driving. So humans always drove to and from the highway, and activated for segments on the highway. Plus they go out to map the roads in manual mode, so that's part of where the 700K human driven miles come from.

"The zero at-fault accident number is both impressive, and possibly involves a bit of luck."

Actually it involves the way that "fault" is determined for vehicle accidents.

Specifically, if you are following me and I come to a sudden stop and you rear-end me, you're "at fault", even if I slammed on my brakes and made a minimum-distance stop with neither warning nor apparent reason.

And guess what Google cars do a lot? Yep--the sensors see something that looks scary (a pedestrian, or a lamp-post that might be a pedestrian, or a shadow that blocks the sensor momentarily) and the operating system says "DANGER! DANGER WILL ROBINSON! STOP IMMEDIATELY!"

Do you have reason to believe that Google has had an accident of the sort you describe? I don't believe they have. Can you point to an accident report?

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