Self-Driving Tech On Parade in San Francisco

The movement that Google started has become unstoppable

Drivers need not apply
Illustration: Shutterstock
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You can learn a lot about the progress of robocars just by eating lunch at the Automated Vehicles Symposium, being held here in San Francisco—especially if you’re standing next to a self-driving skeptic like Lee Gomes. He’s a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum, and he recently broke the story that Google was no longer predicting fully autonomous cars within five years. The company is now talking five to 30 years, depending on driving conditions.

You’re a little pessimistic, I opine. “I’ve covered AI for a long time,” he explains.

Cars are getting smarter all the time, I maintain. Then Nidhi Kalra, a Rand Corporation analyst, brings her plate of food to our little standup table. She’s no pessimist, but she does have questions. 

“What will Google do when its self-driving car finds itself in a situation it can’t handle?” she asks. “If there’s no steering wheel in the car, do the passengers just sit there?”

One particularly audacious iteration of the Google Car concept does indeed leave out the steering wheel. And the accelerator, and the brakes.

Tom Taylor of Wheego Electric Cars leans over a plate of three-bean salad and says Google has done a great job in motivating the notoriously torpid auto industry. “They have no interest in selling cars, they just wanted to push the industry forward, and it worked,” he says.

Wheego is a small example of that phenomenon. A pure-EV outfit—it plans on selling cars to China—it’s attending this conference in part to demonstrate its self-driving chops.

“No, I think Google’s founders do believe in the technology,” retorts Gomes. “They’re computer scientists, and they think computers can do anything.”

One thing’s evident from the attendance list here: Google has got all the major car companies to follow its lead. Nissan and Ford had speakers in this morning’s plenary session. The big auto suppliers are doubling down on robcar tech as well. 

And governments are trying to get out in front of the juggernaut by regulating safety while they can still make a difference. In the morning session, Joan Walker, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, cited the challenge of levying a toll for cars that aren’t carrying even a single person. “If you worry about all the single-occupancy vehicles on the roads, well, now we’ll be getting zero-occupancy trips,” she said. “Once things are free it’s hard to charge [for them]; maybe we can start policy to charge now while we stll can.”

And another thing Google helped to start: Everyone is trying to cherry-pick talent from everyone else.

Kalra got her Ph.D., in robotics, from Carnegie Mellon University. Uber then swooped in and pillaged her old department.

Even some of the plenary speakers have been part of the industry-wide churn.

Faraday Future, the fabulously well-funded Chinese EV company, was represented here today by Jan Becker, who said the company would begin to sell its first products “in the next few years.” The last time he presented at this symposium, Becker represented Bosch.

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IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.