Company / division: Waymo
This feels like something of a slime ball move on Uber’s part on two fronts: firstly, trying to move the court case with Waymo out of open court and behind closed doors; and secondly, essentially trying to push the case off its back and onto Levandowski’s. I had said previously that the course was going to be fascinating for the details it would provide about how Uber developed technologies and how it would defend against what look like fairly solid allegations, but if it gets its wish here we won’t get to see any of that. But I think it’s the attempt to make this a case about an employee rather than the company that seems particularly sleazy – if the allegations are indeed true, then Uber and not Levandowski benefited the most, and making this seem like a dispute between an employee and former employer feels like a total misrepresentation.
via USA Today
California DMV: Humans soon no longer required in self-driving cars – San Francisco Chronicle (Mar 10, 2017)
Michigan’s autonomous driving laws already allow testing of cars without drivers, and given that these two states are home to much of the testing going on, California clearly feels it needs to keep up. Those Michigan laws assume that carmakers are going to comply with all applicable regulations, and therefore require that any testing is done by or in partnership with those carmakers, while the proposed California law has no such restrictions (logical given the biggest local testers are tech companies and now legacy automakers). In both cases, the states are deferring somewhat to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set the overall rules and to some extent approve cars for autonomous driving without a driver. This Chronicle piece quotes a spokesperson from Consumer Watchdog, which has been particularly harsh (perhaps deservedly so) on Uber/Otto, but also seems to be one of the main organizations demanding tougher regulation of autonomous driving in general in California. What’s interesting is that there are so few voices on the other side of this rapid push towards autonomous driving.
Alphabet’s Waymo filed an injunction against Uber for allegedly stealing intellectual property – Recode (Mar 10, 2017)
The fact that Waymo is suing Uber isn’t new, but this new step of filing for an injunction is, and that’s important because it could speed things up considerably. Judging the case in full could have taken months if not years, but a request for an injunction will involve convincing a judge in a much shorter space of time that there’s enough merit to the case for him or her to intervene in the near term. So we’ll know rather sooner how solid Waymo’s case here is, and will likely also get additional details from both sides about exactly what’s been going on. Importantly, we’ll get more from Uber than its brief initial statement about the accusations being baseless, which will be intriguing because from where I sit the forensic evidence looks fairly compelling. As I’ve said before, though, the toughest aspect of this for Waymo and its lawyers is proving that Levandowski actually used the files he downloaded rather than simply his memories of work he’d previously done.
California and Michigan have to be the two states where the most testing of autonomous vehicle technology is being done, with the former home to most of the tech companies in the space and the latter the home of several legacy automakers. The FT is here citing data from the California DMV, which you can see in its raw form here. What’s fascinating is the mix of companies here, as I’ve said before – there are several traditional carmakers (VW, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Honda, Ford, and Subaru), several big names from the tech world (Waymo, Tesla, Uber, Baidu, Faraday Future, and Cruise [now part of GM]), and a variety of other smaller companies. But Waymo has by far the largest number of cars and miles driven (and most accidents). But the California DMV is certainly the source of some of the most interesting data on self-driving testing anywhere in the world right now.
via Financial Times
Uber’s self-driving unit quietly bought firm with tech at heart of Alphabet lawsuit – Reuters (Mar 1, 2017)
This is an interesting angle on the Uber-Waymo lawsuit over the alleged stealing of LiDAR technology by Anthony Levandowski – it appears Levandowski’s Otto acquired a company which specialized in LiDAR technology before it was itself acquired by Uber, providing an alternative theory for how the company was apparently able to get up to speed so quickly on the technology. One of Waymo’s key arguments in its suit was that Levandowski appeared to make unreasonably rapid progress on LiDAR following Otto’s founding, and that the only explanation was theft of ideas, designs and so on from Waymo. As an interesting side note, see also this newly-released October 2016 interview with Anthony Levandowski from Forbes, in which he somewhat bizarrely volunteers the information that he didn’t steal any IP from Google when he left. He also talks through his long history with autonomous driving technology, which raises a key point here: clearly Levandowski learned a lot about this technology over the years, and taking that knowledge with him to a new employer clearly isn’t stealing. So how does Waymo prove in court that Otto/Uber used the documents he allegedly downloaded rather than his personal knowledge (or technology from somewhere completely different) in designing LiDAR systems? If you know the best way to build a LiDAR system because you’ve done it before, are you obligated to act as if you have no idea how to do it when you move to a new employer? I’m not a lawyer, but I think some of these questions are fascinating, and are likely to be critical in this case.
Waymo Sues Uber over Stealing of Confidential Information (Feb 23, 2017)
Alphabet autonomous driving subsidiary Waymo is suing Uber and its Otto subsidiary over alleged stealing of confidential information by Anthony Levandowski, who was one of the early executives at Waymo and subsequently left abruptly in early 2016 and immediately unveiled a self-driving truck company, Otto. That company, in turn, was acquired just a few months later by Uber. Waymo has done some fairly detailed investigate work that’s outlined in the complaint, and discovered that six weeks before Levandowski’s resignation, he downloaded lots of files from Waymo’s servers, and it argues that these in turn informed Otto’s (now Uber’s) LiDAR designs. As this blog post from Waymo says, fierce competition in autonomous driving technology is a good thing – it’s pushing the market forward rapidly and leading to some great innovations that should benefit consumers. But there are obviously lines companies shouldn’t cross as they compete, and this would be one of those, if it’s proven to be true. This is the second lawsuit in recent weeks involving employees moving between autonomous driving companies – the first involved Tesla and a startup. In both cases, the allegation is in part about stealing proprietary information. Given that Uber is already dealing with the fallout from a sexual harassment and discrimination blowup in the past week and still reeling from the #deleteUber campaign, this is terrible timing, but may also be a sign that the company’s aggressive stance on competition is hurting it in more ways than one.
This is a really important aspect of autonomous driving that’s not talked about nearly enough. In the SAE levels system for describing autonomy in vehicles, all the layers between 0 and 5 require the driver and vehicle to work together at least to some extent, which means that even when the car has taken over a task, the driver is supposed to remain ready to take over when the car requests him or her to re-engage. The problem here is that we tend to switch off, whether deliberately or merely passively, when our focus isn’t actively required, and that means that machines have to give us an awful lot of notice when we need to take over. In practical terms, that’s often impossible, and that can actually make cars operating at levels 3-4 in particular less safe rather than safer than human drivers. That has important implications for those manufacturers which seem to be trying to work incrementally up from Level 2 to Level 4 or 5 over time, like Tesla, because there seems to be an increasing consensus that we may need to skip those middle levels entirely. And it also means, as I’ve pointed out a couple of times before, that lots of experience operating test or production vehicles at Level 2 or 3 is not nearly the same as being ready to produce a Level 4 or 5 vehicle.
via Bloomberg (we discussed this topic in depth during this episode of the Beyond Devices Podcast and this talk by Gill Pratt, head Toyota’s Research Institute, is also very illuminating on the same topic)
One Reason Staffers Quit Google’s Car Project? The Company Paid Them So Much – Bloomberg (Feb 13, 2017)
That’s an interesting hook for the article, but far more interesting than the ease of hiring away Waymo employees is the fact that Alphabet had such a kooky compensation scheme in place at all – more evidence that the Porat era has introduced much-needed financial discipline in the Other Bets. Long story short: Alphabet paid massive bonuses to employees in its autonomous driving division based on “project milestones” which had nothing to do with financial performance (since the division won’t generate revenue for years). This, in turn, has apparently loosened up some employees who have enough financial security to take risks on leaving for competitors. It really is remarkable how the Google/Other Bets split has shone a spotlight on some of the crazy largesse in the latter businesses.
The headline is news, I guess, but far more interesting are the detailed reports each company testing autonomous vehicles in California has submitted for 2016. These reports lay out – in some cases in quite a bit of detail – the results of testing during the year, including the miles driven and the number of disengagements. This is a great counterpoint to the article last year which suggested Tesla had an edge over others in autonomous driving because its cars had driven many more miles – the reality is that Tesla’s truly autonomous cars drove just 550 miles on California roads, while Google/Waymo’s drove 636,000, or over a thousand times as many miles. What’s more, Waymo’s vehicles required just 0.2 driver interventions per thousand miles relative to Tesla’s 0.33 per mile. It’s also notable that the vast majority of Tesla’s disengagements were on wet roads – road conditions continue to be a major factor in the ability of many autonomous driving systems to function correctly, which obviously puts them a very long way from mass production and release to customers. I’m planning to dig into all these numbers some more.
The Google Car was supposed to disrupt the car industry. Now Waymo is taking on suppliers – Recode (Jan 28, 2017)
This is a subtle shift, but an important one – one that began to become apparent a few weeks back. Alphabet is fundamentally a software, rather than hardware, company (Google’s recent push into first party hardware notwithstanding) – that’s where its skills have always lain, and where it has been able to add the most value both in its own products and in partnering with others. However, in the car space, it’s increasingly clear that Waymo will pair those software skills with developing hardware skills around things like LIDAR, and potentially attempt to sell packages of hardware and software or even complete systems, rather than just providing the software brains that will leverage hardware from other suppliers in cars. There are pros and cons here – on the one hand, Waymo doesn’t yet have great credibility in hardware in cars, and so trying to bundle the two together may threaten its ability to sell its software. On the other hand, it didn’t have much credibility in self-driving software either a few years back, but has earned it over time and now has partnerships with FCA, among others, so perhaps it can win trust in the same way with hardware as it makes progress here.
Just when we’d got used to the idea that Alphabet was only going to do software when it comes to autonomous driving, it seems it will do some of its own hardware work, specifically on sensors rather than making cars. Not every carmaker that partners with Waymo will want to use its sensors, but it allows Alphabet to own more of the technology and ensure it all works well together.
Uber asked a lot of Pittsburgh for its self-driving cars, and offered back very little — Quartz (Dec 29, 2016)
As I’ve said previously, Uber has a pretty complex relationship with the municipalities where it operates, often flouting taxi regulations and more recently also self-driving ones. In the case of Pittsburgh, Uber has at least worked with the city, but it now appears that it has been something of a one-way relationship. Ironically, the dynamic here is reminiscent of that between Google Fiber and cities, in which the latter have bent over backwards to help Google, whereas in autonomous driving Google (now Waymo) has been more cooperative, while Uber borrows its Fiber playbook.
A transparent attempt to shape the narrative around Waymo and Alphabet’s self-driving car technology, in an editorial jointly written by the head of Waymo and the mayor of Austin. It’s interesting to contrast Uber and Waymo’s relationships with municipalities – Waymo has largely gone out of its way to work with them, while Uber has a more mixed record (notably in San Francisco recently).
Google (now Waymo) partnered with Fiat Chrysler some time ago to use Chrysler Pacifica minivans for testing autonomous technology. This second partnership suggests some momentum, though it’s not yet clear how this fits in with Honda’s in-house autonomous R&D efforts.
The Tesla Advantage: 1.3 Billion Miles of Data – Bloomberg (Dec 20, 2016)
This is a huge oversimplification – Tesla’s cars aren’t entirely autonomous, and mostly use their limited autonomy on highways, whereas truly autonomous vehicles need to learn how to drive in far more complex urban environments. But having production cars actively using the technology certainly helps Tesla.
Teaching a Machine to Steer a Car – Udacity Inc – Medium (Dec 20, 2016)
This has been a fascinating experiment – online coding course provider Udacity partnered with Google (now Waymo) to allow coders to remotely control self-driving cars. The results are now in. The experiment is just that, but highlights both the possibilities and some of the risks of future code-driven cars.