A theme emerged when Apple's director of artificial intelligence research outlined results from several of the company's recent AI projects on the sidelines of a major conference Friday. Each involved giving software capabilities needed for self-driving cars. Ruslan Salakhutdinov addressed roughly 200 AI experts who had signed up for a free lunch and peek at how Apple uses machine learning, a technique for analyzing large stockpiles of data. He discussed projects using data from cameras and other sensors to spot cars and pedestrians on urban streets, navigate in unfamiliar spaces, and build detailed 3-D maps of cities. The talk offered new insight into Apple's secretive efforts around autonomous-vehicle technology.
Rockets, electric cars, solar panels, batteries--whirlwind industrialist Elon Musk has set about reinventing one after another. Thursday, he added another ambitious project to the list: Future Tesla vehicles will run their self-driving AI software on a chip designed by the automaker itself. "We are developing customized AI hardware chips," Musk told a room of AI experts from companies such as Alphabet and Uber on the sidelines of the world's leading AI conference. Musk claimed that the chips' processing power would help Tesla's Autopilot automated-driving function save more lives, more quickly, by hastening the day it can drive at least 10 times more safely than a human. "We get there faster if we have dedicated AI hardware," he said.
But if you were being very precise--if you were a team of Massachusetts of Technology researchers who study human-machine interactions--you wouldn't say that all those Americans are "driving," exactly. The new driver assistance systems on the market--like Tesla's's Autopilot, Volvo's's Pilot Assist, and Jaguar Land Rover's InControl Driver Assistance--mean that some of those travelers are doing an entirely new thing, participating in a novel, fluid dance. The human handles the wheel in some situations, and the machine handles it in others: changing lanes, parking, monitoring blind spots, warning when the car is about to crash. We might need a new word. Fully autonomous cars won't swarm the roads en masse for decades, and in the meantime, we'll have these semiautonomous systems.
Elon Musk has always dreamed big, and tonight he showed off his biggest reverie yet: the fully electric Tesla Semi. Powered by a massive battery, it's capable of hauling 80,000 pounds. It'll even drive itself--on the highway, at least. The big rig, which Musk unveiled at Tesla's design center in Hawthorne, California Thursday night, is just the latest step in his mission to make humanity forget about planet-killing fossil fuels and embrace the gospel of electric power. That is, of course, if he can convince the trucking industry it's time for a new way of moving stuff around--and if he can actually make the thing.
Next month in San Francisco, Uber will stand trial in federal court for allegedly cheating in the race to commercialize self-driving cars. Google parent Alphabet accuses Uber of stealing designs for sensors called lidars that give a vehicle a 3-D view of its surroundings, an "unjust enrichment" it says will take $1.8 billion to heal. Meanwhile in Toronto, Uber has a growing artificial-intelligence lab led by a woman who's spent years trying to make lidar technology less important. Raquel Urtasun joined Uber to set up a new autonomous-vehicle research lab in May--almost three months after Alphabet filed suit. She still works one day a week in her old job as an associate professor at the University of Toronto.
You're lying on your stomach, with your arms draped forwards, almost like you're going to get a shoulder massage. Except this is not a moment for relaxation. Through a VR headset, you see flashes of color, an unfamiliar view of the world, a group of red lines that looks something like a person. And now you have to make a decision, because you're rolling forward, head first, and your right hand is wrapped around the joystick that determines which way you're going. Do you continue forward, and risk hitting that blob that might be a human being?
Hannah pulls up to the curb, opens the doors, and welcomes the kiddo inside. "We're headed to Darwin Elementary." That's where he goes to school, after all. For Milo's parents, there is good news and there is iffy news. The good news is that they don't have to cut babysitting checks for Hannah, because Hannah is a self-driving school bus.
Life is a complex problem. Consider the simple act of moving from point A to point B. Solving for that equation requires synthesizing numerous variables, like speed and obstacles. What if you make it more complicated? Throw in some jaywalking pedestrians, rule-bending cyclists, and, the most erratic variable of all--other drivers. Drivers who are potentially distracted, potentially sleepy, potentially ragey, potentially drunk.
Urban planners talk about two visions of the future city: heaven and hell. Hell, in case it's not clear, is bad--cities built for technologies, big companies, and vehicles instead of the humans who actually live in them. And hell, in some ways, is here. Today's US cities are dominated by highways there were built by razing residential neighborhoods. It's all managed by public policies that incentivize commuting in your car.
For a moment there, Arizona was the place for autonomous vehicles learning to drive. It's a logical starting point for experimental tech--still in its wobbly, Bambi legs stage--that likes warm weather, little rain, and wide open roads. It's easier for their complicated sensors to "see" there, you see. Arizona is, in other words, a lot like California, without the aggressive Department of Motor Vehicles and its pesky regulations. Governor Doug Ducey has directed all state agencies to make it as easy as possible for fully self-driving cars to test in Arizona, no permitting or reporting required.