Every so often, WIRED gets to take a good, long sojourn behind the scenes, to observe what the people we write about are doing all day. This was one of those nice weeks. Editor Alex Davies hopped a plane to Winnemucca, an isolated mining town in northern Nevada that's hosting Alphabet's latest moonshot: its effort to spread the gospel of internet via broadcasting balloons. Senior writer Jessi Hempl got under Uber's hood after the announcement that HR chief Liane Hornsey--the woman brought in to fix the unicorn's culture--resigned for improperly handling allegations of racial discrimination. Contributor Wendy Dent got the scoop on Elon Musk's attempt to build some kind of vehicle that would help the Thai youth soccer team escape a cave complex.
At the blockbuster plenary sessions, the chairs stretched so far back that even the most youthful Silicon Valley college dropouts-turned VC hoovers had to squint to see the action up in front. A handful of large projection screens hung between the ballroom's chandeliers, displaying loop-de-looping flow charts on vehicle safety systems, sensor alignments, liability law. But despite the best efforts of the downtown San Francisco Hilton's air conditioners, the air shared by the attendees of this year's Automated Vehicles Symposium was thick with secrets and doubt. Eight years after Google first showed its self-driving car to The New York Times, the autonomous vehicle industry is still trying to figure out how to talk about itself. Over the three-day conference, engineers, business buffs, urban planners, government officials, and transportation researchers grappled with how to tell the public that its wonder drug of a transportation solution will have its limitations.
If a tree falls in a forest and there's nobody around, does the truck that comes in to pick it up make a noise? Not much of one, if it's the latest offering from Swedish startup Einride, an all-electric autonomous semi looking to carve out a niche in an increasingly crowded (but not yet entirely real) market. The new truck, unveiled today at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK, is the T-log. Like on the T-pod, the truck Einride unveiled last year, there's no cab or engine, just a skinny, sculpted, white slab up front. At the back are upright supports to hold the logs in place.
Federal prosecutors have charged a former Apple employee with stealing trade secrets related to Apple's autonomous vehicle program. Xiaolang Zhang allegedly worked on Apple's secretive self-driving car project. Zhang left Apple in April saying he was going to work for a Chinese electric vehicle company called Xpeng Motors. He is accused of copying more than 40GB of Apple intellectual property to his wife's laptop before leaving the company, according to court documents. The documents do not accuse Xpeng Motors of wrongdoing.
Like in a Tough Mudder, you've got a few strategies when it comes to the race to launch a taxi-like service with autonomous vehicles. You can start early and keep a slow but steady pace. You can show up a bit late, then try to sprint through it. Or you can hold back, see what trips up other contenders, and then slowly work your way through the obstacles. The big automakers tend to fall into the third category.
Driving in a busy city, you have to get good at scrutinizing the body language of pedestrians. Your foot hovers somewhere between the gas and the brake, waiting for your brain to triangulate their intent: Is that one trying to cross the street, or just waiting for the bus? Still, a whole lot of the time you hit the brakes for nothing, ending up in a kind of dance with the pedestrian (you go, no you go, no YOU go). If you think that's frustrating, then you've never been a self-driving car. As human drivers slowly go extinct (and human pedestrians don't), autonomous vehicles will have to get better at decoding those unspoken intersection interactions.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. On June 11, a self-driving Cruise Chevrolet Bolt had just made a left onto San Francisco's Bryant Street, right near the General Motors-owned company's garage. Then, whoops: Another self-driving Cruise, this one being driven by a Cruise human employee, thumped into its rear bumper. According to a Department of Motor Vehicles report, the kind any autonomous vehicle tester must submit to the state of California after any incident, both vehicles escaped with only scuffs. "There were no injuries and the police were not called," Cruise reported.
Ask most of the people developing autonomous vehicles how robo-cars will change the world, and most will say safety--more than a million people die on the road every year, and self-driving cars could prevent some of those deaths. Some might say smarter cars can battle congestion. Ask Dave Ferguson, though, and he'll pitch the idea that this technology could make moving about so efficient and affordable that transportation becomes effectively free. But first, before the zeroes and ones can do any of that, they may bring you your groceries. If you shop at Kroger, that is, and are cool with a Lilliputian pseudo-car pulling into your driveway all by itself.