On a race to Mars: Volkswagen’s inhouse driverless car battle
Waymo is way ahead when it comes to automated driving. To catch up, German automaker Volkswagen is nudging its inhouse think tank Audi AID into competition with self-driving car start-up Aurora.
It came as a surprise to the automated driving community when Volkswagen announced its cooperation with Aurora, the California based start-up founded by automated driving veterans Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell.
A little over a year old, Aurora is already a heavy-weight in the industry. Urmson was the head of Google’s self-driving project before it became a spin-off called Waymo. Anderson was the director of the semi-autonomous autopilot program at Tesla and Drew Bagnell, one of the most respected experts on machine learning in the US, headed the autonomy and perception team at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center.
While Aurora is an ideal partner in the automated driving world, industry insiders expected Volkswagen to keep AD development inhouse. Audi, the Bavaria-based car manufacturer and part of the Volkswagen group, spun off its subsidiary Autonomous Intelligent Driving (AID) in early 2017 to ready a level 5 car for series production. “Autonomous Intelligent Driving is working for the entire Volkswagen group,” Audi boss Rupert Stadler said at the time. Meanwhile, Wolfsburg, where the Volkswagen group is headquartered, was already working on an alternative. “We have been discussing a cooperation with Aurora since 2016. Talking became doing in mid-2017,” said group Chief Digital Officer Johann Jungwirth earlier this year.
Responsible for developing self-driving systems for the Volkswagen group, Jungwirth is stepping on the accelerator to keep up with tech companies such as Waymo and Uber. “It is important that we meet our timing goals,” Jungwirth told 2025AD.com at the Geneva International Motor Show (GIMS). “Aurora and AID are competing. We foster competition not just between service providers, but also with inhouse teams,” says Jungwirth. Volkswagen is aiming to put 50 test vehicles on the road this year. In 2019, the number is to increase by factor 10 before reaching 5,000 autonomous Volkswagen models in 2020.
A fine balance
Time is short and Aurora is taking the lead. Volkswagen’s ride hailing service Moia will be one of the first platforms to integrate Aurora products. To Jungwirth, the potential for a global roll-out and scalability is crucial. “The question is: Who is the first to scale up from five cities to 500 or even 5,000 – without clocking thousands of test miles in each new region?”
Yet fully automated driving may take some time, as Audi boss Stadler points out. “The level 5 robot cab will chauffeur its riders through a city around 2025 or 2030.” The challenges even of partially automated driving made themselves painfully obvious with the fatal Uber crash in Tempe, Arizona, in late March. A pedestrian died as neither the automated Volvo nor the safety driver managed to avoid the accident.
Safety is a prerequisite for automated driving. “It is not enough to have fair-weather-systems that work well in Phoenix or Houston, but not in Chicago, New York or Hamburg,” says Jungwirth. A high quality self-driving system must deliver all its functionality without human interception in all road conditions, be it snow, rain or darkness.
A gauge of firms’ ability to deliver this is provided by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Every December, DMV collects and publishes disengagement reports from all firms testing automated cars in California. Highlighting the number of incidents in which safety drivers interfered with the autonomous mode, this is a reliable indicator to assess the state of automated driving. According to the 2017 reports, Waymo’s vehicles cover an average of 9,000 kilometers before security drivers intervene. The company reported a total of 63 incidents in the 12 months between December 2016 and November 2017. This puts them ahead of most competitors, including their former employee’s new firm. “In this ranking, Aurora is among the top three and rising,” says Jungwirth.
A robot car race won by people
The man nicknamed J.J. is quite familiar with the set-up in California. Before joining Volkswagen, he headed Apple’s Titan project and closely observed events at Waymo. Aurora’s developing speed puts a spark in Jungwirth’s eyes. “They made phenomenal progress over the past 18 months because they focus on the very latest developing tools and sensors instead of dragging along millions of lines of outdated code.”
When recalling a ride in an Aurora prototype in January, Jungwirth becomes enthused. Taking off in Palo Alto, California, the vehicle passed through the urban areas along El Camino, where a mix of more than 30 traffic lights, pedestrians and construction sites puts the car to a test before it escapes the city onto highways. “The car drove for 40 minutes and 35 kilometers without a single intervention by the safety driver.” Radar, cameras, ultra sound and a large Velodyne lidar on the roof guided the vehicle. “On this year’s test vehicles, we will replace the large central sensor with four to six smaller lidars, much like our prototype Sedric,” Jungwirth says.
In the end, the race for automated driving will be won by people. Both Aurora and AID have around 100 employees and rising. Attracting some of the brightest in the industry, this further weakens their competitors. “Only a handful of self-driving systems providers will survive in the long run,” Jungwirth predicts. “In the US, China and Europe, it will be one or two per region. It is important that we take a two-pronged approach.“ The money spent on Aurora is a sensible investment, he says, even more so as the sums are “quite reasonable. We can also share the cost between partners such as Hyundai and Byton.”
The one or two platforms that come out ahead will dominate the market in their region. “The winner takes most. So as a provider, one must make an attractive offer right from the start: a comprehensive mobility service. This starts with self-driving systems and the autonomous vehicles, it continues with fleet operations, a control center and depot in the city and ends with an online interface and ride pooling for clients.” Surely, Volkswagen will be one of the top players making such a comprehensive offer – if the self-driving functionalities become available in time. “Landing a manned rocket on Mars is equally difficult,” Jungwirth says with a wry smile. He surely wants to be the first to set foot on this new planet.