Monday, February 23, 2015

Driverless cars may actually be getting closer

This announcement has me intrigued.

Today, Volvo announced a real, on-the-streets test of 100 of its self-driving cars — a first in the world, and one that will put regular owners in the seats of what it says are production-ready autonomous vehicles, by 2017.

Doing so requires far more than the 28 cameras, sensors and lasers Volvo says its system uses, along with a complex set of software rules, to tackle nearly 100 percent of all driving situations. It also required the approval of lawmakers in Sweden and Gotheberg, the city which will allow owners of these Volvos to legally cruise the streets while reading or chatting away on their phones from behind the wheel.

Making it possible for computers to understand everyday driving situations requires multiple types of radars, several cameras, a multiple-beam laser scanner in the front bumper and 12 ultrasonic sensors — the kind normally used to tell you if you're about to back into a pole. All of these are permanently linked to a special high-definition 3D map, refined GPS sensors and the local traffic control office — which can not only warn of jams, but command inattentive drivers to shut off their autopilots and drive themselves if necessary. And all of the systems have fail-safe modes and backups in case something goes wrong.
It is always risky to say "this is the right way to do this." With that in mind, the right way to talk about technology pretty much always revolves around the following:



Implementation and infrastructure;

And the new technology's place in the existing technology landscape.

Most technology reporters (and I mean the vast majority) don't get these fundamental principles which leads them to more often than not get their stories backwards. In this case, the reporter, Justin Hyde, takes the attitude "wow, it has a special high-definition 3-D map when the appropriate response would've been "damn, it still needs a special high-definition 3-D map." Requiring special infrastructure, even really cool special infrastructure, is a bug, not a feature.

That said, this announcement does make me a bit more optimistic about the technology, at least in part because it didn't come from Google.

Google has a lot of reasons to want to be seen as a diversified, broadly innovative technology company, rather than as a very good one-trick pony cashing in on a monopoly (possibly two monopolies depending on how you want to count YouTube). A shiny reputation helps to keep stock prices high and regulators at bay.

Google has always been good at branding and they do have an extraordinary track record of innovation, but their really impressive advances (natural language processing, mapping, data mining) are closely related to their core business. The further away you move from search engines, the bigger the hype-to-substance ratio gets. This is nowhere more true than with driverless cars. The last round of publicity showed that the company could get as much buzz out of a cosmetic change (removing the steering wheel years after having demonstrated hands-free driving) as it did with the genuine breakthroughs of its earlier model.

Volvo's core competency is making, not only cars, but very safe cars. They have tons of relevant experience and engineering talent and a much larger stake in getting a viable product on the road. What's more, they seem more serious about getting the legal barriers out of the way. I still think that having a fully autonomous car generally available by the end of the decade is a long shot, but those odds might be getting a little better.

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