Over the past 24 hours, there's been an abundance of news about autonomous cars. Here's a recap of the three most notable items, involving California's long-awaited announcement of self-driving car rules, Google's business plans, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk's defense of Tesla's autonomous tech.
CALIFORNIA DMV DELIVERS: In May of 2014, California's DMV unveiled new rules for automakers who want to test their self-driving cars on state roads. That was a hugely important step, since many of the major players in the autonomous car arena are based in the Golden State.
Unfortunately, that was as far as the agency went. We were told that rules governing autonomous cars for actual consumers would be released this year. However, as time passed and December 31 loomed closer, many folks interested in self-driving vehicles -- including the elderly and the disabled -- began to lose hope.
Then yesterday, a holiday miracle happened: at the 11th hour, California published a draft of autonomous car regulations for all the world to see. Over the next couple of months, the DMV will host public hearings to gather input about the proposed rules from automakers, academics, enthusiasts, and other parties.
Not surprisingly, the new regulations are fairly long and involved. However, four of the more interesting points are that...
1. Autonomous vehicles will not be driverless -- at least not at first. The DMV's proposal requires a licensed driver in all autonomous vehicles, and that driver must "be capable of taking control in the event of a technology failure or other emergency". Google is not happy.
2. Automakers will be reviewed after three years. Specifically, manufacturers will receive a three-year permit to be sell autonomous cars, and at the end of the period, they'll be evaluated on issues like performance and safety.
3. Autonomous cars must come with antivirus software. According to the DMV, "Autonomous vehicles will be equipped with self-diagnostic capabilities that detect and respond to cyber-attacks or other unauthorized intrusions, alert the operator, and allow for an operator override."
4. The companies that have applied to test autonomous cars in California include BMW, Bosch, Cruise Automation, Delphi Automotive, Ford, Google, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla Motors, and Volkswagen. Missing from that list is Apple, even though the tech company spoke directly with California's DMV about autonomous cars back in August.
GOOGLE WILL SPIN OFF ITS AUTONOMOUS CAR PROJECT INTO A SEPARATE COMPANY. Earlier this year, Google made headlines when it launched a holding company called Alphabet. Alphabet will act as a parent to the many projects that currently reside under Google's roof, encouraging accountability, tidying up financing, and providing some legal firewalls between enterprises.
To date, Google's autonomous car program has been housed in the company's catch-all division, Google X. When Google X hired John Krafcik to oversee the self-driving vehicle program earlier this year, Google said that the program wasn't ready to become a standalone company under Alphabet, but that it likely would in the future.
Now, the future is here.
What does that mean? At the very least, it suggests that the autonomous car program is gaining speed quickly. Until recently, Google has been the world's unofficial leader in autonomous cars, but with so many new entrants trying to get in on the action, Google is clearly ramping up its investment in the technology to stay ahead. Becoming a company in its own right could be key in helping Google maintain its edge.
ELON MUSK CRITIQUES AUTONOMOUS CAR ARTICLE: Yesterday, Bloomberg ran a piece on 26-year-old hacker, George Hotz, who says he built an autonomous car in his garage. In a month.
Hotz is a stereotypical science whizkid -- the first to jailbreak an iPhone and hack a Sony Playstation 3. He's been interested in autonomous cars for some time, and had some fairly close dealings with Musk about helping to develop Tesla's autonomous driving technology. Unfortunately, those talks fell apart, and in the article, Hotz takes pains to show how much better his hacked Acura is than a Tesla Model S.
That did not sit well with Musk, who sent out this tweet last night:
Vance article on self-driving cars was inaccurate https://t.co/AV636KAcKH— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 17, 2015
The tweet links to an unsigned blog post on Tesla Motors' support section, which defends Tesla's autonomous driving technology and casts plenty of side-eye at Hotz's inventions. An excerpt:
"We think it is extremely unlikely that a single person or even a small company that lacks extensive engineering validation capability will be able to produce an autonomous driving system that can be deployed to production vehicles. It may work as a limited demo on a known stretch of road -- Tesla had such a system two years ago -- but then requires enormous resources to debug over millions of miles of widely differing roads."
Did Hotz strike a nerve? Is he on to something? Did Musk's pride get the better of him? All three? We don't know, but we're eager to find out.