Robocar Year in Review for 2018
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:
- It certainly looks bad for Uber
- How does a robocar see a pedestrian and how might Uber have gone wrong?
- Comparing the Uber and Tesla fatalities with a table
- Uber reported to have made an error tuning perception system
- NTSB Report implies serious fault for Uber in fatality
- Did Uber really botch the switch to one driver and a timeline of the failure
- Almost every thing that went wrong in the Uber fatality is both terrible and expected
- Don't watch TV while safety driving
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
- Uber and Waymo settle lawsuit in a giant victory for Uber The Waymo-Uber battle, triggered by Anthony Levandowski, was concluded this year.
- Anthony Levandowski, Jiajun Zhu and Dave Furguson, all formerly of Google Car, make big announcements Anthony even came back, and other alumni of Waymo/Google Car had their milestones. Nuro's launch of a truly unmanned road robot is also significant.
- Aurora's manifesto is worth a readAurora, lead by former Waymo leader Chris Urmson, laid out their excellent philosophy well.
- Recent Waymo announcements are slightly underwhelming
- Waymo's left turns frustrate other drivers
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.
- Tons of new ideas in aviation. Will regulation stop them?
- Robocars, Flying Cars and Hyperloops, oh my! The not so fictional future of the city
- The Flying car -- and Flying Ambulance -- is closer than we thought
- Kitty Hawk "Cora" comes out of stealth
- Flying cars, robocars and more will rewrite the rural landscape, for good and ill
Other notable news
In chronological order, not order of importance
- Tons of LIDARs at CES 2018 Sensors were a big story this year
- New "Shared Mobility Principles" have too much 2018 thinking.
- FMCW LIDAR is coming, what does it mean?
- Nice summary of LIDAR technologies -- is it a "crutch?"
- Robocars enter phase two as different strategies abound What approaches are the teams taking?
- The GM/Cruise robocar interior is refreshingly spartan What robocar interiors will look like.
- All about sensors: Advanced radar and more for the future of perception
- Local Motors hopes to win with 3D printed robocars A different, small volume approach
- Cruise getting a ticket is a very positive story Cruise got too close to a pedestrian, or did it?
- Tesla model X fatality in Silicon Valley had Autopilot turned on We learn more about what Tesla autopilot isn't.
- Tesla makes a custom neural network chip, is that wise? A first taste of robocar processor battles.
- Google gets a bunch of news -- and that is news. Also, contract manufacturing
- Tim Kentley-Klay suddenly ousted from Zoox See also my analysis of Zoox, written just before this.
- New NHTSA regulations, Waymo miles and big deals
- Lidars and other sensors
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.
- Designing a metric to measure robocar safety -- what does insurance teach? I examine the hard problem of measuring the safety level of a robocar
- Making tunnels for robocars would be vastly cheaper than subways for trains like SF's new Central Subway Once we have robocars, we should rethink even what we put in private right-of-way like subway tunnels
- The paradox on robocar accidents A fundamental change of thinking for understanding trends in accidents
- NHTSA/SAE's "levels" of robocars may be contributing to highway deaths
- Driving without a map is another example of being cheap rather than being safe A mistake I think a few of the major teams are making. This is not the time to be cheap, this is the time to be safe as quickly as you can.
- Safety Drivers for Robocars -- the issues and rationale In light of Uber's mistakes, how should we think of the role of the safety driver?
- No, ads won't pay for your robotaxi ride -- but your employer might, and that has big consequences Debunking one of the sillier ideas out thre, but realizing the basic concept may mean employers pay for commutes, which affects a lot of the economics of travel.
- The road trip robocar and tourist robocar What a robocar meant for tourists and road trips might be like.
- Is BRT the best answer for bewildered city planners? City planners should future-proof their urban plans by using BRT instead of LRT or Subways.
- Is the Zoox plan for a custom car the path to robotaxi domination? I talk about Zoox's radical plan and wonder if it's smart.
- Sharing the ride: Less sharing is better for transit, more sharing better for cars Breaking up the biggest myth of transit planning, that bigger is better.
- The death of parking services has already begun Robocars change parking greatly. Uber has already started that change.
- Calculating all the externalities of driving What we need to do to really plan transportation well.
- The Spot Market in Parking A plan for how parking will get sold in the future.
- Cars will go to the chargers, you don't need to bring the chargers to the cars Solving the charging infrastructure problem for electric cars.
- What does airline competition tell us about robotaxi competition?
- Sleeper cars The first of two essays on cars designed for long-haul overnight trips.
- Sleeper cars and the unexpected efficiency of solo transport
- The dance between pedestrians and robocars How should cars and pedestrians interact?
- The future timeline of robocars -- 2020s land rush, 2030s maturity The answer to that ever-popular question of "When will the robocars arrive?"
- Will people with robocars hire them out as taxis when they are not using them? Breaking apart the economics of sharing your private robocar.
- What processors will be important in robocars? Is the battle for the chip market important?
- What happens to human driven cars in the robocar world? No, we don't kick the humans off the road for a long time.
- Waymo is first, but is Cruise second, and how can you tell? Why it's hard to rank the teams.
- Study claims robocars increase pollution; they could not be more wrong
- The utilitarian math overwhelming says we should be aggressive in robocar development. How do we do that? A look into the moral calculus of taking risks in order to save lives.