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Monday, May 23, 2022

Review: Driven - The Race to Create the Autonomous Car

 Driven is an account of the rise of the autonomous vehicle industry. It traces the rise of the industry from the initial DARPA Grand Challenge, providing excellent background for various of the actors in the industry that has risen since then, many of whom, including Jiajun Zhu, Chris Urmson, Sebastian Thrun, and of course, the infamous Anthony Levandowski would end up building their own firms. When you look at the book, it's easy to see how the early improvements led people to believe that autonomous vehicles would be common reality in 2020: the first Grand Challenge had no robots that finished the course, but by the time the second Grand Challenge had started, nearly 7 teams had finished the course and there was a genuine race. By 2007, the DARPA Urban challenge had produced several teams who could navigate urban environments, including GPS-blocking tunnels and parking lot environments with bicycles and other objects. To any observer it must have seemed as though the road to production was well along its way. By 2010, Google was spinning up Project Chauffeur, with incentive programs that would rival the payout of many startups, but without the risk.

The story follows the story as a journalist can, but perhaps without an engineer's background, didn't see that the "Larry Page 1K Challenge" was too easy to game: the book describes the engineers basically repeating the runs over and over until the conditions made it possible. That's like playing a video game by save-scumming: just save and reload until the random number generator gave you an outcome you wanted. That sort of challenge made it easy for companies and executives to fool themselves into thinking that they had achieved significant milestones.

The entire book is was worth reading and compelling reading I bought it hoping to read it on a plane and ended up finishing it the morning before the plane ride. It's well worth reading for its management lessons (and its ethical lessons), as well as providing you with a realistic view of how far away the industry is from realizing the original DARPA vision. In many places its as compelling a story as any fiction you'll read. Recommended!


G C said...

This is a very interesting book, thanks for the recommendation. I found it incredible that Anthony Levandowski entered a self-balancing motorcycle in the first DARPA challenge. As if the original goal wasn't difficult enough!

Piaw Na said...

I think he knew that he'd be an also run without the self-balancing part of it. It worked.