Inside the car-eat-car world of self-driving technology

Google self-driving car
The finalized prototype of Google self-driving car.

First, it was just a dream. Then it became a quirky research project undertaken by a handful of the nerdiest engineers in the robotics industry.

Now are on the brink of transforming transportation. The industry creating the technology for autonomous vehicles has morphed from a collaborative space of free-flowing ideas into a high-speed road race where the winners will seize a market expected to reach $77 billion by 2035, and the losers 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 fighting 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 intense competition already has spawned at least two significant lawsuits. Coveted engineers working on autonomous cars are regularly switching companies. And a new class of scrappy startups creating self-driving software has emerged, poised to take market share from the established giants.

Meanwhile, the major automakers, such as GM, Ford, 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 tell what these marriages will yield, but several teams appear to be eyeing ride-hailing networks that could pose an added threat to Uber and Lyft.

Nowhere is the tension better illustrated than in the contentious court battle between Google's Waymo and Uber. Waymo says its former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded more than 14,000 confidential company files before leaving to found his own autonomous vehicle startup. The documents allegedly included designs used in Waymo's LiDAR sensor - one of the key technology components that lets self-driving cars "see" the road.

Levandowski founded Otto, an autonomous trucking startup later acquired by Uber. Now Waymo says Uber is employing trade secrets to replicate Waymo's LiDAR sensors, and has asked a federal judge in San Francisco 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 allegations this week.

Trade secret fights are common in Silicon Valley, but one thing that makes this one unique is Google's involvement, which highlights the priority it is placing 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 Google as a plaintiff."

The self-driving car industry was once a close-knit community, Stanford's Smith said, but the Waymo lawsuit illustrates how far it's come since those early days.

"A lot of people were doing a lot of the same things at the same time - working at a university, consulting with a company and starting their own startup," he said. "Researchers were pretty freely sharing information."

Tesla filed a similar lawsuit against a former employee in January. The suit accuses former Autopilot program manager 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 pursue other opportunities or even to create a startup of their own, and Tesla is typically supportive of their personal ambitions and respectful of their decisions," the company's lawyers wrote. "However, Tesla cannot sit idly by when an employee like Anderson abuses his position of trust."

A lawyer for Aurora did not respond to a request for comment.

Tesla, which says two of its engineers ended up following Anderson to Aurora, isn't the only company struggling to retain its top talent. A wave of nearly 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 founded by an ex-Uber engineer. And last year, two of Google's top self-driving car executives left to start self-driving car startup

Seeing those key people depart is especially painful in the self-driving car space, experts say, where there already is a shortage of talent because of the nascent state of the technology.

"Finding and recruiting the top talent is really the name of the game," said Karl Iagnemma, co-founder and CEO of nuTonomy, a Massachusetts-based startup working on software for self-driving cars. "It's intense competition to get those people."

Data also is a priority - companies must collect hours of driving data to teach their software to navigate the road. Google got an early start - the company began testing self-driving Prius cars in 2009, and its spinoff Waymo now has about 60 cars collecting 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 its cars' Autopilot feature.

Some smaller startups are taking a different approach. Palo Alto-based Nauto charges $400 for kits that let taxi drivers, fleet operators and Uber and Lyft drivers retrofit their cars with cameras that give alerts when a driver is doing something unsafe like tailgating. Those sensors funnel driving data back to the company, which is working on fully autonomous software.

Apple, meanwhile, reportedly is working on a secretive self-driving car initiative called Project Titan, though details remain scant.

So does information on how some of the industry's main players plan to profit from their self-driving technology. But as hints of future business plans emerge, there are signs of overlap that could add to the competition. Uber is betting its future on autonomous vehicles that can someday replace human drivers in its ride-hailing network. Tesla has expressed interest in creating its own ride-hailing network, and Waymo is rumored to be eyeing similar plans.

When it comes to the actual technology behind their cars, the companies are even more tight-lipped. One key feature most share is LiDAR - sensors that use lasers to create a 3-D image of the car's surroundings. That's the technology at the heart of the Waymo v. Uber lawsuit. Waymo says it invested tens of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of engineering hours to build its own sensors, which would cost up to $60,000 off the shelf, only to have Uber copy that work.

Trade secrets related to that technology are so precious to Waymo that when the court fight began, Waymo refused even to tell Uber which secrets it was accusing its rival of misappropriating.

However the case plays out, it could have major repercussions for the industry.

"If Google were to get everything that it is seeking," Smith said, "it could stop Uber's self-driving car program."

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Uber fires back at Google spinoff in self-driving car case

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Apr 09, 2017
It is a wonder how much money and other resources are being put into a technology most people simply do not want. As the technology matures, there will doubtless be areas where autonomous vehicles will be viable options. But unless there is a massive change in people's desires, there will not be a market large enough to cover the massive costs of development.

Apr 09, 2017
Ditto Dogbert.

70 years ago video phones could have been mass produced. Today FaceTime is possible.
YET people want to be comfortable in their unpreparedness when answering calls, that they
prefer not to be seen by the caller. Even under most conventional circumstances peoples'
preference is to not be seen by the opposite party.

Similarly 70 years ago the autonomous vehicles were buses... the population has voted on their preference.

Apr 09, 2017
They want it, dogbert.

Not everyone, of course, but many who have a daily commute or drive long trips will welcome this.

And those unable to drive will love them.

Apr 09, 2017
There are certainly people who want autonomous vehicles. But my comment was that most people do not want it. Far more people don't want it than want it.

Apr 09, 2017
I have to agree.

It may take a generation to be fully accepted and used all the time.

Some of us give up hard.

Apr 09, 2017
Having had my neck broken and rebuilt, and no longer being able to drive, the autonomy of being able to tell my car where to go (aside from to hot regions in anger) has a lot of appeal anymore. When I had my surgery and found how limited I was, and the meds they wanted me to be on, I went down and turned in my Drivers License for the State ID instead. Has been 14 years now and not being Able to drive is a major limitation, having to depend on others or buses or the like is not always the needed answer. Having a car that woud drive itself to where I needed to go, without having to depend on other people, would set me free again in so many ways. If I had the money, other than being on SSI, I would buy one for sure, especially if electric.

Apr 10, 2017
It is a wonder how much money and other resources are being put into a technology most people simply do not want.

Just because you (or I) don't want it doesn't mean most people will not. There's a lot of money to be made - from autonomous trucking to autonomous taxi service to people who are on the road a lot for business reasons to people who aren't really awake enough in the morning to the elderly to the disabled or to people who want to go out partying at night.
It doesn't even have to be 100% of the time autonomous. It might be that just having the option is a boon. You go out to have dinner...have a few drinks...decide you're not fit to drive so you switch to autopilot. It's basically why people have a 4 wheel drive or a trunk or an AC. They don't use it 99% of the time, but when they do they're glad they have it (AND it was a condition of purchase).

Apr 10, 2017
Just because you (or I) don't want it doesn't mean most people will not.

That statement is true. But in fact, most people really don't want autonomous cars.

Certainly there are niche markets, people who cannot drive or cannot legally drive, certain restricted uses, etc. But the general population does not want or need autonomous vehicles.

Tremendous resources are being consumed in pursuit of products which the general population does not want and therefore will not be purchasing. The companies which are seeing huge profits from the technology will likely find that you cannot sell something which your clients do not want. They will be able to serve the niche markets, but those markets are unlikely to be large enough to recover the massive expense of development.

Apr 10, 2017
Apple's exit is very telling. Self driving cars are going nowhere.

Apr 10, 2017

How do you know that most people don't want self-driving cars? It seems that people don't know they want new technology until it is available. Most people didn't want the Internet until it was available. Most people didn't want smartphones or Facebook or search engines. Then the technology became available and people discovered they couldn't live without it.

Maybe self-driving cars will be a flop, or maybe they won't. It's impossible to know, but a lot of people are betting that they won't be a flop.

Apr 10, 2017
most people really don't want autonomous cars.

I have to ask. Do you think all those billions of dollars and all that research is going into somthing that you know more about than all their consumer studies have shown?
Queen Elizabeth showed how smart she was when she hired a speech therapist to figure out why one of the richest and most influential people in the world kept getting interrupted when she was speaking.
She unlike you realized there must be a problem with her thinking, since it was obvious she was not in tune with everyone else.
The speech therapist then studied her speech and said she was hesitating to long in the middle of sentences and people thought she was finished speaking.
Just for example the population of senior citizens is growing faster than is being repopulated. Senior citizens reach a time when they can't drive or get lost. They will simply tell the vehicle where to go. Even you will love it then.

Apr 10, 2017
most people really don't want autonomous cars

What do you base this statement on?

Tremendous resources are being consumed in pursuit of products which the general population does not want

Since it's private companies spending their own money - what do you care? They seem to think they can make a buck off of this.

Apr 10, 2017

Google is not a private company, neither is Apple. The various car manufacturers who are developing the technology are public companies. Uber is planning to be a public company soon.

Stockholders can lose money when the companies they hold stock in make bad decisions, particularly when those decisions are extremely costly.

Apr 10, 2017
A legal expert but did not address the legality of AVs themselves in insurance sense, legal responsibility sense since even AVs cannot control physics and accidents will happen unless 100% will be blamed on human error but it would sound like terror of machines that never go wrong. Interesting legal questions that will have top be addressed, more interesting than stealing software issues started with Gates who stole his operating system in 1970-ties.

Also there are still unresolved severe technical issues.

Here are some of them:

Apr 10, 2017
"more interesting than stealing software issues started with Gates who stole his operating system in 1970-ties."

Actually, I think they bought it from the guy who admitted he "stole" it.

Apr 10, 2017
The liability issue is interesting. Who gets the blame for any Bus, Train, Plane or other mass
transit accident? I think the same would hold true here. In fact, the manufacturer or leasing/renting company would have to be held accountable if only to ensure it's in their interest to make a safe product.

Apr 10, 2017
Who gets the blame for any Bus, Train, Plane or other mass transit accident?
most likely that would be first the operator of the company, then the state, unless they [operator/state] can prove there is a fault with programming and or the equipment

for a leased vehicle it would entirely depend on the contract and type of lease: a lease for personal use (like personal rent-a-car) would differ than a lease for commercial purpose

Apr 11, 2017
If industry heads met in priviate and yours truly was a 'mouse in the corner hole in his easy chair in front of his TV with direct connect to the building security system. Maybe he hears:

Big Boss: Minions, I think we need to move ahead with speed and progressive steps on this.
Minion sycophant 1: But boss, the people will never want to buy the ugly crap we want to sell them and you insisted on having us design.
Big Boss. To HELL with the public. Get on the horn with our bought and paid for Republicans and get that fool Trump to rubber stamp our legislation and earmarks. We will FORCE the stupid apathetic public to buy what we put out and like it or go to JAIL. Simply jerk all their driving privileges and confiscate their cars as 'polluters'. That will even make damm demos happy.
Minion2. But Boss, those things are not safe. They crash! They crush like tinfoil...l
big Boss: SHUTUP! YER' FIRED! Let 'em DIE!..
Probly da truth!

Apr 11, 2017
If industry heads met in priviate and yours truly was a 'mouse in the corner hole in his easy chair in front of his TV with direct connect to the building security system. Maybe he hears:

Wow, that fantasy is even better than my 7 year old could do! I bet you do that good because you live in a fantasy world in your head. I think though you might have stole it from one of those japanese karate movies.
In which case you not only live a fantasy but if true it would make you a plagiarist to.

I take all that back if you were just being dumb and trying to be cute for some girl.

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