Waymo is bringing an autonomous vehicle factory Detroit, Michigan.
This morning, just on the heel’s of Tesla’s Autonomy Day, during which company CEO Elon Musk announced that Tesla will have more than one million robotaxis on the road next year, Google’s autonomous-vehicle brand Waymo fired back with an autonomous-vehicle announcement of its own.
In a press release, the self-driving technology firm made known that it is establishing, what it calls, “the world’s first factory 100% dedicated to the mass production of [Level 4] autonomous vehicles.”
Rather than build a new factory from scratch, Waymo is partnering with American Axle and Manufacturing to repurpose one of AAM’s old facilities.
Waymo did not disclose a timeline for when the facility would be fully operational. However, when it initiated the search for a production site, it wanted to be able to get it up and running “by mid-2019.”
“Today’s announcement by Waymo shows that the City of Detroit remains at the center of the future of the auto industry,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a prepared statement.
The more we learn, the less we know
Just because Waymo is ready to found a facility to build Level 4 autonomous vehicles doesn’t mean the tech is ready for widespread deployment. Likely, today’s announcement is more one upmanship than actual indication that Level 4 autonomy is ready for public rollout, which it’s not.
An engineer from Audi’s autonomous driving technology team once admitted to me that the more they dig into automated driving, the more they realize just how far they are from robots mimicking the capabilities of a human driver. Heck, even one of Waymo’s autonomy chiefs predicted in 2013 that fully driverless cars would be prevalent on the roads by 2016. Obviously, they’ve missed that mark.
Now, if Waymo plans to build Level 4 autonomous low-speed shuttles for use at, for example, airports, then, yes, they could be ready for deployment soon. There are still many technological hurdles that need to overcome before Level 4 self-driving cars can be safely rolled out on public roads.
What are some of those hurdles? Well, first, 5G cell signals will need to be implemented wherever the vehicles are traveling. That’s because autonomous cars need high-speed access to high-definition mapping and GPS data kept in the cloud in order to traverse even geofenced areas and roads.
There will need to be robust and widespread WiFi-based vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications, too. This technology allows cars to talk to each other, or a computer system that helps manage traffic. Currently, only a few Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benz models feature V2V tech. And installing that infrastructure on a broad scale will be time consuming and incredibly costly. America can’t afford to fix its aging bridges. So odds are small that the funds will be found to support autonomous cars, which the public is widely afraid of, anytime soon.
Then there is the sheer computing power needed onboard an autonomous vehicle. VW’s autonomous e-Golf vehicles each have the computing equivalent of 15 laptops in their trunks, which process five gigabytes of data per minute. And that’s not taking into account the tens of thousands of dollars in redundant sensors Level 4 autonomous vehicles will need to have onboard.
A grain of salt
I am not suggesting that Waymo is fibbing or blatantly exaggerating like Musk may be. It’s good to be optimistic, as Waymo clearly is.
I think, though, that announcements like this lend credibility to dubious and misleading claims like those Musk made yesterday. What’s more, they lull some drivers into believing Level 4 fully self-driving vehicles are ready for the road. They’re not — not from any brand.
That’s a problem because we’ve already seen people die from asking more of their Tesla’s Autopilot system than what it is truly capable of safely accomplishing. Making people prematurely believe their car can drive itself safely without anyone onboard as soon as next year is dangerous.
We should all get excited about autonomous cars. They will someday help reduce traffic deaths and improve vehicle efficiency. They’re not one, or even six years off, though. And it’s important we not forget that.