The State of Self-Driving Cars: Lasers, Luxury, and Scandal

Amidst the chaos of a typical junior year is the process of learning to drive a car. From first hand experience, the responsibility of driving a car as a 16-year-old is nerve wracking. Yet by the time senior year kicks into full gear, everyone seems so sure of their driving abilities. But will this responsibility even be a worry for the next generation of students? Silicon Valley companies like Google, Tesla, and even Uber have sought out technologies to create autonomous cars for the American roads. Their technologies haven’t been perfected as of yet, but these self-driving cars may very well be the universal mode of transportation for the future.

Google is often cited as the company that popularized the concept of the driverless car. The Google Self-Driving Car Project, now known as Waymo, began research and testing of their prototypes in 2009 under the supervision of Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence. For the car model, the team decided to work with Toyota Priuses and Audi’s TT series to launch their self-driving car movement. A professional driver and a Google engineer are always in the car just in case the car malfunctions. Waymo has tested their cars on Google’s 71-acre Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California. Like many juniors, the car still had to pass its road test. The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) did not have a test for autonomous vehicles, opting for manufacturers to self-administer the test, so the Google engineers found the Nevada DMV as a perfect testing ground for their road test. The autonomous car passed its road test on May 1st, 2012 with only one minor flaw: stopping at unexpected construction work on the road. The driver ultimately had to take over to get out of the tricky situation, but the officials still were proud to announce that the car had passed the test.




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One of Google’s many self-driving car prototypes (Flickr)


Passing a road test is an achievement, even for an autonomous car, but what technologies actually enable the car to be autonomous? Sensors placed on the exterior of the car allows detection of pedestrians and objects, while a GPS maps the location of the car and its coordinates. The most fascinating of these technologies of Waymo’s self-driving car deals with the interactions between the camera and the software. A 64-beam laser mechanism is paired with a 360 degree camera to create a light detection and ranging system (LiDAR). This innovation generates a three-dimensional render of the area surrounding the car in real time, which allows the car to obey traffic laws and avoid obstacles. All these components work harmoniously with the software to automate the Waymo Self-Driving Car. In 2015, the Waymo car completed its first driverless public trial in real traffic, and the company looks to run more trials and start implementing the car into the mainstream lifestyle.

If you’ve ever seen a Tesla car in person, it must have stunned you with its beautiful luxurious design. Some models have retractable handles and falcon wing doors. The company is undoubtedly blending design and function out of their zero-emission upscale electric-powered cars. Everything about their cars is state-of-the-art, including their onboard Autopilot feature. In October 2014, Tesla began equipping their Tesla Model S with only cameras and sensors, unlike Waymo’s costly laser technology. The car offered a limited autonomous driving experience powered by beta software that could also avoid collisions and park the car. The small-scale software was disregarded for a year, until Tesla Motors sent a revitalized upgrade, Autopilot 7.0, via an over-the-air update. Its most recent version, Autopilot 8.0, boasts features like parking/’unparking’, having your car locate and find you in a parking garage, automatically change lanes, and maintain speeds within speed limit restrictions.Perhaps the most impressive feature is the ability to get into your car and verbally tell the car where to go. Absolutely hands-free. The ability for Tesla cars to be fully-autonomous is the next goal to revolutionize and popularize ‘self-driving status’ in the public eye. Tesla is looking forward to a productive 2018 —perfecting its fully-autonomous Autopilot software and ramping up production for their newest car: the Model 3.

Stuck in an unfamiliar part of town at 4 AM in the morning? With a few taps on your phone screen, an Uber can pick you up within 15 minutes. Uber has made a name for itself in the past few years as a simple taxi service that benefits threefold: the driver, the passenger, and of course, Uber itself. As of 2015, Uber decided to get into the self-driving car game; the new buzz of the auto industry. The future system would eliminate the necessity of paying the middleman (the driver), giving Uber 100% of the profit from passengers. As if the company doesn’t seem evil enough, recent scandals both in and out of the self-driving car division have labeled the company as unethical by many.

Surprisingly, the whole story begins with Google. Anthony Levandowski was a head engineer at Waymo from 2007 to the beginning of 2016. He decided to leave the project to build his own self-driving car company, Otto. The company became a small automobile firm based out of San Francisco, focused on developing driverless hardware that can be easily installed onto vehicles. After being acquired by Uber in August 2016, Otto and Uber started working together on Uber’s budding self-driving car project. The next month, the Uber self-driving car launched in Pittsburgh, offering passengers a ride in a Ford Fusion sans driver. Of course, Uber engineers were on standby in the driver’s seat for safety. It seemed a bit too remarkable that Levandowski was able to launch his own company, develop self-driving technology, and provide it to Uber in the span of 9 months. Google noticed.

Waymo filed a class-action lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 on the basis that blueprints, schematics, and documentation regarding LiDAR technology were stolen from Waymo’s personal servers by Anthony Levandowski. Levandowski is accused of downloading 9.2 GB worth of information to jumpstart Otto’s operations. Emails from Waymo’s parts supplier led Google to believe that Uber is stealing LiDAR technology for implementation in their own self-driving car. To add, many have boycotted Uber as a result of its political ties and release of sexual harassment allegations by Uber employees. The future is looking rough for Uber on all fronts, and if Waymo successfully wins the case, Uber could be facing a staggering blow stunting its goal to profit from self-driving car technology.

The technologies produced by Google, Tesla, and Uber have transformed into a competition to be the first to commercialize the self-driving car. Whether the developed technologies come from years and years of research and development, or stolen information from competitors has yet to be determined, but all three companies are evenly split head-to-head in the race to introduce a perfect self-driving car. Nevertheless, the companies still face major governmental challenges, as self-driving cars must be regulated by the government of each individual state. For each state government to regulate the use of self-driving cars will take a considerable amount of time—time that is precious to these Silicon Valley rivals. Yet in the midst of all this rivalry, drama and innovation, I still have one question: do I still need to drive everywhere?
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