Topic: Autonomous driving
Toyota, Ericsson, Intel, NTT, and other companies have formed a consortium to figure out ways to manage the massive explosion of data that will be generated by cars over the coming years. As cars become more autonomous, they will need to gather enormously more data from cameras, radar, LIDAR, and other sensors and transmit at least a subset of that data over networks to central repositories for processing and analysis. That, in turn, is going to require some big decisions about which data to process locally, what needs to be sent over the air, and how much and which data to store on an ongoing basis in both locations. Since carmakers like Toyota don’t really have much experience with that kind of thing, network infrastructure vendor Ericsson and chip vendor Intel among others are going to work together with them to figure some of this stuff out, and have left the door open for others to join their effort in future. Notably absent from this initiative are other big automotive chip vendors like Nvidia, any cloud service companies beyond Japan’s NTT, or mapping companies like HERE, and given the strong roles they’re playing or likely to play in this area, the consortium does need to add additional members (including ones who compete with the founding members) if it’s to make real headway here.
It’s been somewhat heartening lately to see Lyft partnering with a number of different players around autonomous driving technology, and even announcing its own “open platform” (mostly an API for integrating with its ride sharing data) for the space. At a time when Uber, Waymo, Tesla, and a raft of big legacy automakers are all competing around self-driving systems, it appeared Lyft was going to avoid diving into the fray and instead try to partner with the best in the industry. However, all that got rather turned on its head today when it announced that it will also be developing its own self-driving technology, with 10% of its engineers already devoted to this area and a big expansion and new offices planned for the team. On paper, that looks like something of a contradiction given the recent announcements about partnerships, or at the very least a serious hedge that will make at least some of those partners think twice. However, in reading both Lyft’s own blog post and several press articles about the news, I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s actually very little there, and in fact Lyft may be building something far more limited in scope than what most others mean when they talk about a self-driving system. All that’s really described in Lyft’s announcement is leveraging its existing ride sharing data and possibly adding sensors to some of its drivers cars to create 3D mapping. The former is already the centerpiece of its open platform, while the latter seems overly ambitious and probably also redundant given the much larger and more advanced high definition mapping efforts underway for the last several years. What I don’t see any references to are developing LIDAR or other hardware necessary for self-driving, or even software to steer self-driving cars – it’s almost as if Lyft expects its partners to fill those roles, though it still talks about Lyft’s own self-driving cars as distinct from those run by partners. I’m hoping we’ll get more clarity as this project moves forward, but suspect it’s less momentous and therefore also less contradictory than it might at first seen based on the headlines.
Waymo Drops Three of Four Patent Claims Against Uber (Jul 7, 2017)
Waymo has dropped three of the four patent claims in its lawsuit against Uber, partially complying with a suggestion from the judge in the case. The patents dropped relate to a design which Waymo became aware of, but which Uber doesn’t actually use and has promised not to use going forward, making them much less important. The judge has indicated throughout the process that he largely believes Waymo’s claims about Anthony Levandowski downloading files and bringing them to Uber, but has also suggested that the patent part of the lawsuit is going to be tough to prove and should be set aside by Waymo. Uber is, of course, trumpeting the news as a sign that the whole thing is misguided, while at the same time seeking depositions of Alphabet executives with a few to showing that the suit is motivated by a desire to slow Uber’s efforts down rather than a true desire for legal redress. The tone of Uber’s statement to various outlets today certainly suggests that it isn’t backing down on its aggressive response following the departure of Travis Kalanick as CEO, answering one of the questions I posed at the time he stepped down. Ultimately, though, narrowing the case to a few key points and potentially even dropping the remaining patent claim is likely to give Waymo a better chance at winning in court, even if the scope of that win is smaller than it originally hoped. Update: later in the day, the judge granted Uber’s request to depose Larry Page for up to four hours, per Recode.
The US House Energy and Commerce panel held hearings today on proposed legislation to regulate the licensing of autonomous vehicles for testing on roads. There is, of course, quite a bit of that testing going on already in various states throughout the US, but the Congressional effort aims to unify regulation on the topic and create a single set of policies nationally as a result. The carmakers are, in theory, in favor of that, but only if it reflects the lighter-touch approaches currently being taken by states like California, while safety advocates are pushing for tighter regulation, more testing, and generally slowing things down. There are sensible arguments being made on both sides here – no-one, least of all the carmakers, wants high-profile accidents featuring self-driving cars putting the whole field back by years. But given the potential of autonomous driving to increase safety over time, there are also strong safety-centric arguments for allowing reasonable testing to go on without burdensome oversight. Given the current state of US politics, I’m not 100% confident that we’ll get a sensible bit of legislation out of all this, but I do think that it’s inevitable and welcome that we’ll eventually have a national framework for not just testing but ultimately selling autonomous vehicles. Testing is an area that needs to be addressed today, but commercial vehicle sales are several years away and as such there’s time to get this stuff right and no need to rush into anything today. But there are some really thorny issues here that do need to be thought through in great detail, not least questions of liability and responsibility.