Wowza — that’s a top-tier troll to start the weekend. This autonomous driving space is getting especially saucy in 2021. There have been hot comments and battles in logic (ahem, lidar) in the past in this field, but recent snipes from Waymo CEO (until just this month) John Krafcik, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and now the former lead at Google’s self-driving vehicle project before it turned into Waymo, Chris Urmson, are taking the spice to another level. (Oh yeah, Ford also threw some snark in there, but I think that was more of an uninformed mistake than a notable troll.) Here’s Urmson’s either intentional or unintentional trolling of Elon Musk and Tesla in response to a question about Tesla’s robotaxi plans:
“It’s just not going to happen. It’s technically very impressive what they’ve done, but we were doing better in 2010.”
That’s either a “sick burn” or a comment Urmson is going to end up regretting. We’ll see what the future has in store. Considering how much top experts in this field disagree on the best path forward, I’m not going to pretend that I know with certainty who is right. However, the debate is fascinating at this stage, and the entertainment is getting to something like a Silicon Valley Jerry Springer level with recent comments and growing stakes.
While we do typically focus on Tesla, Waymo, Cruise, and perhaps one or two others when writing or talking about the autonomous driving market, Urmson’s project/startup since leaving Google shouldn’t be left out. Furthermore, Urmson thinks he and his team will beat Google/Waymo, and he clearly thinks they will beat Tesla.
Urmson was a cofounder of Aurora after leaving Google and has also been its CEO. It seems that he basically admitted in a new Bloomberg interview this week that he left Google and started Aurora because he didn’t get the CEO gig when Waymo was formed. “I’d been leading and building that team and, for all intents and purposes, general managing it for years,” Urmson cooly griped. “Of course I wanted to run the program.”
Arstechnica nicely summarized Urmson’s history in this field. “Few people have been working on self-driving cars longer than Chris Urmson. Urmson played a key role in Carnegie Mellon’s team in all three of DARPA’s famous Grand Challenges between 2004 and 2007. He then led Google’s self-driving project for several years. Urmson left Google after being passed over to become the CEO of the spin-off company that became Waymo.”
Aurora has received investment from Amazon and Uber. Frankly, if you’re in the autonomous vehicle business, there are possibly no partners you’d rather have than Amazon and Uber for getting your vehicles out in enormous volumes once the tech is ready. Urmson and team also have partnerships forming well beyond Amazon and Uber. “Since co-founding the company in January 2017 — with former Tesla engineer Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, who came from ATG — Urmson has been lining up deals to ensure that buyers will be waiting when his robot drivers are ready. The plan is to begin with long-haul trucking. Earlier this year, Paccar Inc. and Volvo Group signed agreements to install Aurora’s automated driving system in their trucks. The two companies would then offer these trucks, capable of operating themselves for long stretches, to their shipping customers, who would pay Aurora for the hours of automated driving,” Bloomberg writes. Aurora has also partnered with Toyota to get the robotaxis built once the tech is ready. (Toyota’s said to be pretty good at mass production.)
That said, not all of the self-driving experts in Urmson’s cell phone are as bullish on autonomous driving. A former Aurora manager who Bloomberg talked to but who didn’t want their name announced for the world comments: “It’s like taking two money pits and making a bigger one,” referring to Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) apparently losing money month after month as well as Aurora flying through the cash it’s raised as it tries to get a commercial product to market.
So, whether it’s Aurora, Waymo, Tesla, or Cruise, you’ve got experts (aka people) who are very bullish on their prospects for being the industry leader, and you’ve got critics who are ready to roast the startups and their CEOs for not being at the finish line yet and potentially never getting there. I’m open minded about the market, since it seems arrogant and presumptuous to say that any one of them is definitely going to be ahead of the others. If I had to bet on one … oh, well, I have basically bet on one by putting much of my investment cash into Tesla (not a recommendation, and I offer no investment advice of any sort). So, yeah, I put more of my faith into Tesla’s approach and Elon Musk’s ability to deliver. That said, it is no secret that Elon’s forecasts have been overly optimistic for a while on this topic. In response to his most recent tweets about Autopilot/AI/Full Self Driving progress, many redditors brought out the torches and pitchforks. Numerous Tesla owners and fans have lost their patience on this topic and are quick to reference the 2017 coast-to-coast drive a Tesla was supposed to be able to perform. Here were Elon’s comments in 2016 about this: “Our goal is, and I feel pretty good about this goal, that we’ll be able to do a demonstration drive of full autonomy all the way from LA to New York, from home in LA to, let’s say, dropping you off in Time Square in New York, and then having the car go park itself, by the end of next year. … Without the need for a single touch, including the charger.”
The one thing that I think all of these autonomous driving/AI experts would agree on regarding this topic is that it’s been a much harder challenge than they originally assumed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think they’ve all discovered that there seems to be an endless series of challenges and edge cases that keep them away from their ultimate goal.
At CleanTechnica, have to simplify the topic. Our articles are relatively short articles we write about autonomous driving (though, Chanan certainly challenges the descriptor “short”). But imagine for a moment that Chris Urmson has been working on this topic full time for more than a decade, and Elon Musk has been focused on it and has had a large team of “Jedi engineers” focused on it for several years as well. And then there’s Kyle Vogt, Jesse Levinson, Bryan Salesky, and many others. It’s anyone’s guess which of these obsessed experts and their teams gets across the finish line first — without a human driver at the wheel.