First, it was only a dream. Then it became a quirky research project undertaken by a handful of the nerdiest engineers in the robotics industry.
Now self-driving vehicles are on the edge of transforming transportation. The industry creating the technology for autonomous vehicles has morphed from a collaborative room of free-flowing ideas into a high-speed road competition where the winners will seize a market expected to reach $77 billion by 2035, and the duds will be left in the dust.
“The money involved – the money expended in these research efforts and the money expected if they’re successful – has just ballooned and become so much more concrete and attainable, ” said Bryant Walker Smith, a scholar with Stanford Law School who specializes in self-driving car law.
Major players – Google’s Waymo, Tesla and Uber – are battling to set the industry standard for consumer-ready autonomous vehicles. Each has much at stake – for Uber, autonomous vehicles could be the ride-hailing startup’s best shot at profitability. But the road ahead is marred by potholes and speed bumps.
The powerful competition already has spawned at least two important lawsuits. Coveted engineers working on autonomous cars are regularly switching companies. Plus a new class of scrappy startups creating self-driving software has emerged, ready to take market reveal from the established leaders.
Meanwhile, the major auto manufacturers, such as GM, Kia, Fiat Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler, are staking out their claims to the industry by investing in and partnering with the key tech players. It’s too soon to inform what these marriages will yield, but several groups appear to be eyeing ride-hailing networks that could pose an added threat to Uber and Lyft.
Nowhere is the stress better illustrated than in the contentious court battle between Google’s Waymo and Uber. Waymo affirms the former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded more than 14, 000 confidential company documents before leaving to found his own autonomous vehicle startup. The documents apparently included designs utilized in Waymo’s LiDAR sensor – one of the key technology components that lets self-driving cars “see” the street.
Levandowski founded Otto, an autonomous trucking startup later acquired by Uber. Now Waymo affirms Uber is employing trade secrets to replicate Waymo’s LiDAR sensors, and has asked a federal judge in Bay area to prohibit Uber from using that technology – an order that could potentially devastate Uber’s self-driving car program. A hearing is set for the first week of May, and Uber is scheduled to respond to Waymo’s accusations this week.
Trade key fights are common in Silicon Valley, but one thing that makes this one unique is Google’s involvement, which highlights the concern it is positioning on its self-driving car program.
“Google doesn’t sue people – period, ” said Eric Goldman, director of Santa Clara Law’s High Tech Law Institute. “It’s very exceptional to find Search engines as a plaintiff. inch
The self-driving car industry was once a close-knit community, Stanford’s Smith said, however the Waymo lawsuit illustrates how long it’s come since those early days.
“A lot of individuals were doing a lot of the same things simultaneously – working at a university, consulting with a company and starting their own startup, ” he said. “Researchers were pretty openly sharing information. “
Tesla filed a similar suit against an ex employee in January. The suit accuses former Autopilot program supervisor Sterling Anderson of nabbing Tesla’s confidential information and trying to recruit at least a dozen of the company’s engineers before leaving to found a competing startup.
Anderson and Chris Urmson, the former chief technology officer of Google’s self-driving car program, recently launched self-driving car startup Aurora Innovation.
“Tesla understands that some employees may decide to go after other opportunities or even to create a startup of their own, and Tesla is typically supportive of their personal ambitions and well intentioned of their decisions, ” the company’s legal representatives wrote. “However, Tesla cannot sit idly by for the employee like Anderson abuses his position of trust. “
The law firm for Aurora do not respond to a request for comment.
Tesla, which states two of its engineers ended up following Anderson to Aurora, isn’t the only company struggling to retain the top talent. A wave of practically 20 people left Uber’s Pittsburgh-based, self-driving car program in November and December, said a person familiar with the matter, with many of them joining Argo AI – a competing startup started by an ex-Uber professional. And last year, two of Google’s top self-driving car executives left to begin self-driving car startup Nuro. ai.
Seeing those key people depart is especially painful in the self-driving car space, experts say, where there already is a shortage of talent as a result of nascent state of the technology.
“Finding and recruiting the top skill is very the name of the game, ” said Karl Iagnemma, co-founder and CEO of nuTonomy, a Massachusetts-based startup working on software for self-driving vehicles. “It’s powerful competition to get those people. inch
Data is also a concern – companies must gather hours of driving data to teach their software to navigate the street. Google got an earlier start – the company commenced testing self-driving Prius cars in 2009, and its spinoff Waymo now has about 60 cars gathering data.
Uber gathers information in a similar way, operating dozens of self-driving cars in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Tempe, Ariz. Tesla is mining data from the thousands of customers driving with the cars’ Autopilot feature.
Some smaller startups take a different approach. Palo Alto-based Nauto charges $400 for kits that let taxi cab drivers, fleet operators and Uber and Lyft motorists retrofit their cars with cameras that give alerts each time a driver is doing something unsafe like tailgating. Those sensors funnel driving data to the company, which is focusing on fully autonomous software.
Apple company, meanwhile, reportedly is focusing on a secretive self-driving car initiative called Project Titan, though details remain short.
So does information about how some of the industry’s main players plan in order to profit from their self-driving technology. But as hints of future business programs emerge, there are signs of overlap that can add to the competitors. Uber is betting the future on autonomous automobiles that can someday change human drivers in its ride-hailing network. Tesla has indicated interest in creating its ride-hailing network, and Waymo is rumored to end up being eyeing similar plans.
Whenever it comes to the exact technology behind their cars, the companies are actually more tight-lipped. One crucial feature most autonomous automobiles share is LiDAR — sensors involving lasers to create a 3-D picture of the car’s surroundings. That’s the technology at the center of the Waymo sixth is v. Uber lawsuit. Waymo states it invested many thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of executive hours to build its own sensors, which would certainly cost up to $60, 000 off the rack, simply to have Uber copy that work.
Trade secrets associated to that technology are usually so important to Waymo that when the courtroom fight began, Waymo refused even to tell Above all which secrets it had been accusing its rival associated with misappropriating.
Nevertheless the case performs out, it might have main repercussions for the industry.
“If Google would be to get almost everything that it is searching for, ” Smith said, “it could stop Uber’s self-driving car program. “
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