In a recent blog post, Waymo says it has cut the cost of the sensors for its suite of autonomous driving hardware by half and doubled how far it can see ahead, behind, and to the sides of a vehicle. Before it was Waymo, the company was an offshoot of Google. With engineer Lawrence Burns as its leader, the team began by building a car to compete in the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2004. From there, it created the cute little 2-seat Google car. The entire story is a fascinating one well told by Burns in his recent book, Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car… and How It Will Reshape Our World.
From there, Waymo was spun off as a freestanding operation with the mission of bringing self-driving, on demand ride-hailing services to the masses. Transportation as a service promises to be a very lucrative business and Google wants to earn a share of the profits on offer.
Waymo began by converting several hundred Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vans and putting them into service in Phoenix. It forged a partnership with Magna to build the cars together at a factory in Michigan. And it struck a deal to buy 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs and convert them to self-driving duties. The first of the Jaguars arrived in San Francisco last July. When all is said and done, Waymo intends to have nearly 70,000 autonomous cars in service — one quarter of the entire US taxi and limousine fleet.
In a blog post dated March 4, Waymo expounds at length on the technological marvels of its latest 5th generation self-driving technology which includes 5 lidar units, 29 cameras, and a bunch of radar units grafted onto the roof of the vehicles and sprouting from all four corners in self-contained pods.
The company waxes eloquent about how far each of those sensors can see in difficult conditions such as bright sunshine, moonless nights, fog, snow, smog, and haze. It even features a GIF showing an unlit tractor trailer crossing in front on a dark night, an eerie and uncomfortable reminder of the situation that killed Joshua Brown on a Florida highway in 2016.
Waymo claims its latest lidar units can “see” 300 meters ahead, its cameras — both visual and infrared — can “see” 500 meters ahead, and its radars can detect a motorcyclist hundreds of meters away. Not only are range and resolution vastly improved, the company says the cost of the sensors and associated digital processors has been reduced by as much as 50%.
Given all of that is true, the effect of adding all that hardware to the svelte I-Pace results in an “Ouch, my eyes!” moment. We can carp about Elon Musk and Tesla not hitting their self-driving targets on time, but they need to be applauded for integrating the suite of sensors into their cars in a way that is virtually undetectable to the untrained eye. The Waymo experience demonstrates just how hard a job that is.
Nevertheless, TechCrunch reports that Waymo has just completed a $2.25 billion funding round led by Silver Lake, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and Mubadala Investment Company. Participants included Magna, Andreessen Horowitz, AutoNation, and parent company Alphabet. None of those companies apparently gives a damn if the cars are unsightly as long as they generate plenty of revenue.
Anthony Levandowski Loses In Court
Here’s a side note to the Waymo story. Remember that book by Lawrence Burns about Google’s early involvement in autonomous driving? One of the members of the team was Anthony Levandowski, a talented engineer who created some disruptions, including starting his competing company while still employed by Google.
At the end of 2016, he left Google with little advance notice and founded Otto, an autonomous trucking startup, within weeks. Shortly thereafter, Uber bought Otto and Levandowski became the head of Uber’s self-driving program.
Google sued Levandowski and Uber, alleging he downloaded gigabytes of proprietary data from its servers as he was headed out the door. Uber eventually settled with Google, paying $244 million in damages. Levandowski and Google submitted their dispute to binding arbitration. At the end of last year, the arbitration panel found for Google and awarded it $179 million in damages. That award has since been affirmed by a judge and as a result, Levandowski filed for bankruptcy last week, according to a report by The Washington Post. The newspaper also says he may now be charged criminally for theft of Google’s trade secrets.
The tech world is infested with people looking to cash in on the enormous amounts of money being thrown around by investors looking for the next Microsoft, Apple, or Tesla. Levandowski appears to be living proof of the old adage that the line between genius and insanity is extremely thin. Most would agree that whatever comeuppance now comes his way is richly deserved.
The piece de résistance in this story is that Uber’s employment agreement with Levandowski required it to pay his legal fees pertaining to any disputes. But in an SEC filing, Uber says its obligation to pay is now “subject to a dispute between the parties.” Proving the truth of another old adage that goes like this: “When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”
So much drama over self-driving technology is perhaps the best indication of how much money is at stake for those who can conquer the transportation as a service model — which ultimately amounts to little more than providing self-service horizontal elevators for the masses.