Google vs. Uber and the race to self-driving taxis

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Alphabet will make self-driving cars an independent business in 2016.

It says the search giant is developing a ‘ride for hire’ service for the cars, putting it in a head to head battle with Uber, which has invested heavily in self driving cars GoogleThe screens, which could be mounted on the doors or hood could flash alerts like ‘Stop’, ‘Safe Cross’ or a traffic sign that would inform pedestrians about what the car is doing. You won’t be able to have a fully autonomous car of your own for at least a few more years, but the race to develop the best technology is already tearing up the asphalt.The tech giant’s plan to begin a ride-sharing service is apparently getting blown out in 2016, according to Bloomberg, citing a person familiar with the matter.

Google is turning its self-driving-cars unit into a standalone business under the parent company Alphabet next year, Bloomberg’s John Lippert and Jack Clark reported Wednesday. Google’s autonomous vehicles have logged more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) on public roads, mostly around San Francisco and Austin, Texas.

That’s still pretty vague, but it doesn’t sound much different from the service Uber provides—especially since one of Uber’s goals, CEO Travis Kalanick has said, is to get into the driverless-car business. “Look, Google is doing the driverless thing, Tesla is doing the driverless thing, Apple is doing the driverless thing,” Kalanick said in an interview with Late Show host Stephen Colbert in September. Google and Alphabet co-founder Sergey Brin said in September that self-driving cars may first appear as a hire service, as ‘having the vehicle come back to us every day’ meant Google could rapidly update the machines. ‘They took all the guys that were working on vehicle autonomy — basically whole groups, whole teams of developers, commercialization specialists, all the guys that find grants and who were bringing the intellectual property,’ recalls a person who was there during the departures, according to the Verge. ‘We are excited to join the community of Pittsburgh and partner with the experts at CMU, whose breadth and depth of technical expertise, particularly in robotics, are unmatched,’ said Jeff Holden, chief product officer of Uber, revealing its office there. ‘As a global leader in urban transportation, we have the unique opportunity to invest in leading-edge technologies to enable the safe and efficient movement of people and things at giant scale. ‘This collaboration and the creation of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center represent an important investment in building for the long term of Uber.’ ‘Uber is a rapidly growing company known for its innovative technology that is radically improving access to transportation for millions of global citizens,’ said Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. ‘We look forward to partnering with Uber as they build out the Advanced Technologies Center and to working together on real-world applications, which offer very interesting new challenges at the intersections of technology, mobility and human interactions.’ Self-driving cars were rear-ended 50 per cent more often than traditional vehicles, according to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

Manik Gupta, who announced his move on LinkedIn after working on Google Maps for seven years (most recently as the director of product management), just joined Uber as the director of its maps product. But the company has previously said that despite its investment and research in self-driving cars, it doesn’t intend on becoming a car manufacturer. Researchers analysed the cumulative on-road safety record of self-driving vehicles for three of the ten companies currently approved for such vehicle testing in California – Google, Delphi, and Audi.

Overall, they said ‘the distance accumulated by self-driving vehicles is still relatively low, about 1.2 million miles, compared with about 3 trillion annual miles in the US by conventional vehicles.’ They also pointed out that tests have been confined to ‘safe’ areas, so ‘Self-driving vehicles were thus far driven only in limited (and generally less demanding) conditions (e.g., avoiding snowy areas).’ The study’s authors, Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, concluded: ‘We currently cannot rule out, with a reasonable level of confidence, the possibility that the actual rate for self-driving vehicles is lower than for conventional vehicles. ‘The current best estimate is that self-driving vehicles have a higher crash rate per million miles travelled than conventional vehicles, and similar patterns were evident for injuries per million miles travelled and for injuries per crash. At the time, the company told Quartz that it had no immediate plans to spin the program out into its own business, but that it was a “good candidate” for that in the future. The exodus from Google to Uber has been so noticeable that Fallows recently said on stage at a recent StrictlyVC event that one out of three people he worked with at the $50 billion startup was a former Google colleague.

The patent says, ‘the vehicle may include sensors which detect an object such as a pedestrian attempting or about to cross the roadway in front of the vehicle.’ This past Halloween, Google was teaching cars how to recognize children in their costumes, part of a feature that is educating them how to react and act around children. Google’s venture division, Google Ventures, invested roughly $250 million in Uber in 2013, but the two companies’ expanding ambitions mean they are increasingly eyeing each other’s turf. Uber is working on its own fleet of self-driving cars for hire, and just about every major car manufacturer seems to be working on bringing driverless cars to the streets. The arm could mimic that of a humans, as it ‘sweeps’ for pedestrians to cross, but the message could come across unclear when it’s coming from a robot and not a real person.

And with neither committing to actually manufacturing their own vehicles, which carmakers will each be partnering with to bring its technology to the road? Toyota has pledged $1 billion into research for robotics and AI, Tesla has already introduced an “autopilot” self-driving mode, and Apple is apparently also researching autonomous vehicles.

Its life sciences division is now Verily, and its robotics division—including Boston Dynamics—is now apparently called “Replicant” within the company. Countless other automakers have semi-autonomous systems in the works — like GM’s Super Cruise, debuting next year — and many are pointing to 2020 as a turning point for fully self-driving rides. Tesla, Nissan, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, BMW, and others are all permitted to test self-driving cars in California, which has become a hotbed for autonomous testing in recent years. Google still has the advantage, and Uber recognizes that, which may explain why the company is so aggressively pursuing Google’s engineers and executives.

High-definition maps are key to a successful self-driving car project; Uber is building up its mapping division in parallel to its self-driving unit, the former staffed with ex-Google employees and the latter with Carnegie Mellon University engineers. Asked about Google’s self-driving success rates, he said, “Getting Google’s cars to a 90 percent solution is going to happen soon.” But he predicted Google wouldn’t get to a “99.99 percent success level” for another 15 or 20 years.

Google, on the other hand, recognizes Kalanick as a serious threat in his own right. “The thing you have to understand about Travis is that he is the definition of a serial entrepreneur in its purest form, with all the strengths and weaknesses that comes with,” Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, told Time this month for Kalanick’s Person of the Year runner-up profile. “He’s a fighter. And surveys suggest that consumers are excited about the technology, but also concerned about safety, security, and, of course, how much it will cost them. Licensing and regulation are also serious hurdles, and Uber — its wall decorated with the scalps of politicians who dared to oppose it — has an advantage over Google in that regard. After all, Google said it was interested in commercializing self-driving technology back in September when it announced John Krafcik, the ex-CEO of Hyundai and former president of TrueCar, would run its self-driving car division.

After all, Kalanick, ever the businessman and opportunist, is said to have mentioned not long ago that he’d buy a half-million self-driving Teslas if he could; why not adorable little (and possibly cheaper) Google cars instead?

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