A startup’s road to self-driving future.
This is an article written by Azra Habibovic, Senior Researcher in automated vehicle systems at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden. The article was originally published in Swedish by RISE within its newsletter and blog on automated vehicles: https://omad.tech.
I recently attended to an event where Chris Urmson and Sterling Anderson from the startup company Aurora discussed automated vehicles. The event was organized by the MIT Club of Northern California and took place at the research center PARC, a Xerox company where many major innovations have been created. There were around 300 participants at the event.
Chris has been the one who started and led Google’s self-driving project (now Waymo) before leaving it in 2016 to start Aurora together with Sterling, who until then had been leading Tesla’s development of active safety and Autopilot (as you may remember, he had a dispute with Tesla that they solved without going to court).
The discussion was very lively, much thanks to the moderator Mark Platshon, who started and financed several companies (including Tesla) and worked in many positions with various vehicle manufacturers.
Eventually, there will be a video recording of the discussion, but until then you will have to settle for my notes:
- Why do you leave your dream job on Google / Tesla to start a new business? Both Chris and Sterling had very diplomatic answers to this question, but if you read between the lines it is about being able to do things in your own way. They had both learned what works and what does not, and saw their chance to do things right from the start. It includes the technology development itself, but also how to interact with others, including the authorities.
- What makes their new company Aurora unique among many similar companies is that Aurora knows where they want to go (“we know where we are going” was repeated at least ten times in the evening!). The company’s vision can be summarized in three words: safely, quickly, broadly.
- What also makes the company unique and that Chris and Sterling consider to be the guarantee of success, is its employees and mix of experiences. Many of Aurora’s employees are world-leading experts, and this is what attracts investors and partners.
- Aurora wants to develop a “driver” that can be integrated into different vehicles. The company cooperates with several vehicle manufacturers and service providers to ensure that the developed driver can be integrated into various vehicles and services. The former is, however, the priority; Without a functioning self-driving system in vehicles, it becomes difficult to have services based on self-driving vehicles. In both cases, the focus in on the development of communication platforms and interfaces. Aurora doesn’t want to be seen as Tier 1.
- According to Chris and Sterling, they want to let the vehicle manufacturers do what they are good at: building cars. They do not see any problems in that the vehicle manufacturers themselves are developing self-driving systems; it is only positive, because then they realize how difficult it is and are impressed by Aurora’s system. I myself would not be so sure of it – we know that vehicle manufacturers are undergoing a transformation and actually have a lot of know-how.
- There was a question about their view on the fact that AI is developing quickly and how they can be sure that the foundation they are putting now will “hold” in a couple of years. There is a big difference between integrating new functions into an existing software architecture, and doing so on a specially developed architecture. Aurora has chosen to develop its own architecture with the help of world-leading experts who set the norm in the area. As far as the hardware and related networks are concerned, it is an area that is under development, and right now it is unclear what works best.
- Remote control of self-driving vehicles is not excluded, but then for very unique cases. Basically, a self-driving system must be able to cope with the traffic on its own. The same applies to wireless communication (V2X): it is good to have, but it should definitely not be a prerequisite for self-driving vehicles.
- High resolution maps are needed. The theory that it’s hard to keep them updated is a bit exaggerated, because they are created using sensors used for automated driving. This means that maps can be continuously updated without extra cost.
- Currently, a combination of different sensors is needed. Once the algorithms have improved, it is not unlikely that it will be enough with cameras solely, but it will take a while. Lidar components are not expensive at all, so there is no reason why lidars will remain expensive when ordering them in large quantities.
- Safety was definitely the most discussed topic. A combination of field tests and simulations for specific operative domains is the way forward, combined with a well-thought-out and well-documented development process.
- Having a constant dialogue with the authorities is crucial. It is about explaining to them how the system was developed, which standards and principles they followed and how it was tested so that they understand why the manufacturer believes in the system. A kind of mutual understanding. (Must say that I was surprised at how often they used the word “explain” and “believe” in this context!). Aurora has a constant dialogue with the authorities. No third party is required to validate the safety, it is the manufacturer who has the best knowledge of the system. One can then wonder how objective this would be?
- There will be no “driving license” for automated vehicles. The systems are too complex and cannot be generic. Instead, it is important to explain the system to authorities and the public in their own language.
- Flying cars can become a reality in a distant future. But right now, there are many obstacles, not least regular, that make it less likely for such solutions to break through. In addition, an incredible number of flights are required for such a solution to be cost-effective.
- In the beginning, many, especially vehicle manufacturers, saw Google’s work on self-driving vehicles as madness. According to Chris, this changed when Uber entered the game. Then the vehicle manufacturers began to realize the seriousness of the whole thing. He also points out to understand that the automotive industry is not homogeneous; Even among the most conservative companies, there are those who are futuristic.
In the end, I want to share with you that I learned a new acronym (!) – ACES (Autonomous, Connected, Electric, Shared).
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