Waiting for the Robocars, Part IV
After Part 1 looked at potential changes to speed the arrival of Robocars and Part 2 looked at the autonomous vehicles we’ll see before driverless cars, Part 3 continued the series by looking at how the incumbents are preparing. Part 4 now examines whether those developing driverless cars should consider working together to make progress faster.
While the myriad teams testing self driving cars on the streets of the US (currently over 80 different companies) may frequently claim an altruistic motivation to improve road safety, the startling amounts of venture capital they are devouring suggests a very singular focus on the commercial returns that await the eventual winner or winners of the self driving car race. It would be nice to think that these efforts are in fact aiming to eliminate car crashes, improve mobility for the less able and/or deliver environmental benefits, but if that were truly the case, there would be far more collaboration towards the end goals instead of the secretive, competitive projects vying to produce a working solution.
In Part 1 of this series, I likened the complexity involved in the development of Robocars to the Space Race. But one crucial difference here is the lack of a cooperative, single-minded, national-level effort to deliver a technological achievement previously thought of as beyond the reach of humans. Instead, each company is pursuing its own independent approach, gathering their own data, building their own perception and planning systems and running their own simulations.
A Problem Shared
I can’t help but wonder (perhaps unrealistically) if we could achieve the positive benefits of driverless cars sooner if the incredibly clever people, currently working in isolation to outdo each other, actually collaborated? These teams must be duplicating work. They must be replicating similar scenarios and they must also each be encountering and overcoming unique outlier cases. If you could combine all of the resources developing independent solutions, you would have more learning data. Pooling this hard-earned knowledge would undoubtedly save time and lead to driverless cars on the streets sooner.
There are also, of course, strong arguments in favour of continued competition. Rather than putting all hope on a single team solving the complex challenges, there’s merit in the situation where teams can try different approaches. The sense of urgency created by the size of the prize and the prestige of winning may be just as valid an inducement as a shared goal for the greater good.
Signs of Openness?
While it may sound naive to suggest a more open approach, actually there are some examples of collaboration in the industry and signs of an increasing willingness to embrace some co-opetition. Chinese Internet giant Baidu has created the Open Source platform Apollo and signed up over 100 partners; there have also been open source releases from leading industry players Cruise, Aptiv and Nvidia, as well as projects such as LG’s open source simulator for autonomous research. Even the usually secretive Waymo has announced its intention to release, in the coming weeks, an Open Dataset, for non-commercial use by researchers. It contains over 3,000 driving scenes and 16 hours of video data.
Stronger Together or Divide and Conquer?
I fully expect that the main players in the Robocar race will continue to pursue their proprietary developments, with the occasional piece of strategic cooperation. But I also predict we’ll see a continuation of the alliances I mentioned in Part 2, as well as a flurry of consolidations as the major players snap up/acqui-hire some of the smaller startups which can’t survive on their own.
Ultimately, I believe that intense competition will lead to the creation of several viable solutions, each with their own technical idiosyncrasies. Already we can see certain providers focus on narrow solutions — so an automated software “driver” that can operate on highways but not city streets.
However, it’s vital that, in any rush to commercialise driverless technology, there must be no compromises on safety. And for anyone who thinks they can cut corners, there’ll be a competitor waiting in the wings to challenge them. First to market may not be the ultimate winners, if the finished product isn’t acceptable to the regulators — and more importantly to the travelling public.