Rolling Out The Red Carpet For Waymo’s Self-Driving Cars Coming To Los Angeles
To clarify, there is the city of Los Angeles (population of about 4 million), which is a subset of the larger county of Los Angeles (total population of about 10 million, encompassing over 100 cities), of which most people think of “Los Angeles” as the entire county, complete with celebrity-laden Hollywood, sandy and wave-crushing surfing beaches, bustling downtown L.A. area with its ever-rising skyscrapers, and enough other varied habitats to declare this place as a bubbling and intertwining series of city-varying biomes.
Maybe you’ve heard of Arcadia, Artesia, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Carson, Cerritos, Culver City, El Segundo, Glendale, Hermosa Beach, Inglewood, Irwindale, La Mirada, Long Beach, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Paramount, Pasadena, Redondo Beach, San Gabriel, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, amid the slew of local cities in L.A. county.
For anyone seeking to put a self-driving car through its paces, coming to L.A. puts you into one of the biggest and potentially baddest places to see what your driverless car can do.
There are already about 8 million cars registered in the county of Los Angeles, and it seems that nearly all of them want to drive around at the same time, being joined too by hundreds of thousands of cars being used to commute into the county area each day from other surrounding cities of Southern California.
One estimate is that the cars roaming and puttering within Los Angeles drive a staggering 222 million miles, per day (yes, that’s each day), which is both a source of pride and a sorrowful matter.
The sorrow comes from the massive traffic snarls and the sluggish drive times to get across town, along with the voluminous fender benders and car crashes (in L.A. City, there are over 50,000 car accidents per year, and that’s just in that one city).
A distance of 20 miles, a rather common distance traversed to get from one part of town to the other, which in theory could be driven at a speed of 60 miles per hour via open freeway speeds in a mere twenty minutes time is much more likely to take an hour, or perhaps an hour and a half to even two hours, depending upon the time of day and the luck of the draw.
Forget about the concept of open freeways and your hair cheerfully wafting in the wind as you zip along in your speedster. Those days are long past.
We also reportedly have some of the worst roads in the entire United States.
Stats show that car owners here need to spend an average of about $3,000 extra per year on automobile repairs, maintenance efforts, and added fuel consumption to contend with our lousy roads.
Potholes, yep, we’ve got them, lots of them.
Cracked asphalt and streets that look as though heavy military tank treads have driven over them, sure, they are aplenty.
Faded street surface markers and confounding painted lines on the roadways, allegedly there to provide driving guidance, those are here too.
It’s a bonanza for any self-driving car maker that wishes to have their vehicles travel over the adventurous and arduous 22,000 miles of public roadways, or maybe it’s more of a potential headache and heartache that will prove to be a trying experience for driverless cars.
One could argue that if a self-driving car can make it here, it can make it anywhere (humble apologizes to New York City which thinks of itself in those terms).
Waymo’s First Actions Here
Currently, Waymo has started undertaking an extensive mapping activity of having a few of their specially outfitted data-collecting vehicles crisscross the Los Angeles area.
These vehicles contain a state-of-the-art barrage of sensory equipment, the idea is to first map out the area and then use those maps to get the self-driving cars ready for hitting our streets.
You might be puzzled that such mapping is being undertaken since certainly one would assume that Google has already mapped the Los Angeles region, which it has.
The conventional mapping did not go as in-depth as does this specially performed new mapping. Tons of added data of a 3D nature and including subtle but significant aspects like where the curbs are, and the locations of intersection traffic signals are considered a savvy aspect to have in-hand for their driverless car efforts.
It is widely known that Waymo’s self-driving cars have been cruising around the Silicon Valley area (that’s Northern California, not Southern California), and notably undertaking a pronounced tryout effort in the Phoenix area, doing so with a human back-up driver in their vehicles as a safety precaution.
Many would assume that coming to another locale, such as Los Angeles, should be a piece of cake.
Toss in some maps of the local area, and voila, you’ve got your self-driving car primed to rove here and there in Los Angeles.
Well, one could try doing it that way, but the odds are that any such ill-prepared self-driving car is going to experience a lot of difficulties and unknowns.
Readying a self-driving car for a new locale like Los Angeles, encompassing a confounding variety of roadway infrastructure, plus the cultural norms of how drivers drive here, plus the antics of pedestrians and bicyclists in the L.A. region, and other nuances are likely different than what has been encountered in other places.
In that sense, after potentially conquering driving in Los Angeles (assuming they can), the ability to replant their self-driving cars in many other areas of the United States will have a much stronger leg-up, having dealt with the diversity of driving challenges here.
I realize we don’t have the kind of adverse weather that one would experience in the Midwest or East coast, and thus the odds of having the AI learn about snow-related driving or dealing with sheets of ice on the roads is relatively slim. Nonetheless, you gain a lot of hefty and valued driving experience by figuring out how to drive in Southern California.
Besides, we’re also known for a rather snarky trick, you can go to the beach in the morning and catch the waves, and then head-up to the local mountains in a two-hour drive and be in the snow, going skiing and making snowmen. Thus, in one day, you can readily experience both sunshine and dry roads, coupled with snowfall and icy roadway conditions.
One supposes that a self-driving car could do the same trick if you wanted it to get experience in both warm weather and cold weather. As a helpful suggestion, the human back-up drivers should probably bring their skis and heavy jacket in the driverless car, being ready to make such a journey at a moment’s notice, if the snowfall conditions warrant such a quick trip (okay, I’m half-joking about this).
Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
It is important to clarify what I mean when referring to self-driving cars, which has become a misused and confusing phrase.
True self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless cars are considered a Level 4 and Level 5, while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-ons that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out).
It is notable to point out that in spite of those dimwits that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, do not be misled into believing that you can take away your attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the car, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.
The general public oftentimes does not realize what Waymo is trying to do in comparison to many of the other companies striving toward arriving at truly self-driving cars.
There are essentially two major kinds of strategies involved in seeking true self-driving cars.
One strategy involves focusing on Level 2 and Level 3 cars, and then incrementally trying to turn those into Level 4 and Level 5 cars. This is a step-wise refinement approach.
Another strategy, the one being employed by Waymo, involves leaping over the Level 2 and Level 3, allowing them to concentrate entirely and solely on achieving Level 4 and Level 5.
As I’ve exhorted many times, the dangers for those immersed in the Level 2 and Level 3 is that you are including humans in co-sharing the driving task, and for which there are a lot of chances of things going awry. Some assert that Level 3 cars are going to be a quagmire of co-shared car crashes and incidents.
Fingers will be pointed at the human driver and fingers will be pointed at the semi-autonomous automation. It’s going to be a mess.
Partially to avoid that kind of lawsuit laden bog, Waymo is instead aiming to get to the moonshot of a true self-driving car by bypassing the intermediary levels.
They have been doggedly pursuing this strategy for many years.
Keep in mind that it is tempting to ratchet downward into the Level 2 and Level 3, allowing one to almost immediately monetize and commercialize your driving automation. Meanwhile, trying to get much dough out of Level 4 self-driving cars is going to be limited, until and if the Level 4 capabilities can be advanced sufficiently to run on their own without a human back-up driver, and safely so.
Google has had deep enough pockets to take a gamble on swinging for the fence, while many of the traditional automakers weren’t able or willing to make the same bet.
The head of an automaker has to serve two masters, their need to put new cars into the marketplace today and thus earn money in doing so, while also keeping an eye towards the future and not get caught holding the bag if others achieve true self-driving cars and they did not.
As I’ve mentioned previously, this explains why there are so many partnerships and coopetition arrangements occurring in the self-driving car realm. Everyone realizes the steep risks involved in trying to arrive at true self-driving cars and are seeking ways to spread the risk and the costs involved in getting there.
There’s a famous model of change that was promulgated by Kurt Lewin and postulates that anytime you introduce change you should be undertaking three steps, namely preparing for the change (unfreezing), performing the change, and then solidifying the change (freezing in place).
I bring this up because the act of introducing self-driving cars into a locale needs to be done via making use of those three steps.
A self-driving car is a form of innovation and must be treated as a change or disrupter to today’s transportation modes.
Unfortunately, some of the earlier efforts to bring self-driving cars into a new location were done in a typically tech affronting manner. Suddenly, driverless cars were seen around a town, and nobody knew what they were doing there.
One of my favorite stories is the one about a cop that stopped a self-driving vehicle and was concerned about the fact that it appeared to be void of a driver. That’s not a good way to make yourself part of the neighborhood.
Surveys already show that the American public is skeptical of driverless cars, including that around three-fourths are concerned or fearful about the advent of self-driving cars.
If you abruptly parachute self-driving cars into a city or town, the odds are that rather than being welcomed with open arms, you might have some coming after you with pitchforks and rightfully worried that Frankenstein has arrived.
Fortunately, the self-driving car companies have learned the lesson of being more neighborly and are gradually doing a better job of introducing themselves into each new locale.
In that manner, the act of Waymo starting their mapping efforts is akin to the first step of the Lewin model, essentially getting Los Angeles ready for the arrival of Waymo’s self-driving cars. The mapping process is quite benign, and yet it effectively says in bold letters that change is coming.
Ease your way into the market, that’s an astute way to proceed.
One can speculate about ways to further gain traction in the Los Angeles region.
When the timing is right, perhaps invite some celebrities and prominent dignitaries to take a ride in a Waymo self-driving car, which would catch the eye of the media here and globally. It would also get the gossipy side of town to spread the word, which maybe is even stronger than everyday media proclamations.
We’ve also got our lauded Vision Zero initiative that has had a lot of fanfare by Los Angeles politicians and other local officials. I’ve been saying all along that self-driving cars could be a mighty contributor to the Vision Zero goals.
Critics of the Vision Zero effort are quick to point out that despite the program being launched some three years ago, hoping to eliminate traffic deaths by the year 2025, hundreds of such deaths are still taking place each year.
There are lots of ways that Waymo might decide to wine and dine Los Angeles as part of the collegiate bonding of having self-driving cars roam around the region.
Another idea would be to consider connecting with some of the local universities, such as USC and UCLA, allowing for college students to be some of the first participants in a driverless car passenger program akin to the one taking place in Phoenix.
Gaining the hearts and minds of millennials, and boosting their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) would seem like a handy means of achieving multiple birds with one stone.
It won’t be all roses and bright sunshine here in Los Angeles for the introduction of driverless cars.
As a dual-edged sword, the kind of publicity that can be achieved by using self-driving cars here is astronomical and could be a huge boon, though if an incident occurs, the same level of heightened attention could cause the megaphone to turn on a dime and loudly denounce driverless cars.
We can be hot or cold here, whichever way the wind is blowing that day (more so than just the Santa Ana winds).
You can anticipate that Los Angeles pedestrians will want to exercise their curiosity and innate cynicism, trying to prank any self-driving cars that they happen to see.
Imagine too a bunch of self-driving cars that get mired in bumper-to-bumper L.A. traffic, suffering the same indignity that the rest of us daily endure. Sad, but true.
Local drivers often solve Sudoku puzzles or try to learn a foreign language via audio tapes, doing so while endlessly stuck at the wheel of their car in snail-paced traffic.
Maybe self-driving cars can turn their pumped-up computer processors, working rather idly while in no-go go-slow situations, toward calculating pi to the longest number of digits or participate in the SETI program to detect whether there are aliens on other planets beaming radio waves at us (there are a lot of Los Angeles residents that already think they are receiving such signals directly to their noggins).
One potential qualm is that driverless cars are supposed to be a forerunner of reducing traffic and yet they will at first will regrettably contribute to worsening traffic.
You could certainly argue that the number of self-driving cars will be a drop in the bucket in comparison to the millions of everyday cars on the L.A. roads, but a picture could be worth a thousand words and people will simply be disgruntled to see that there are more cars floating around, albeit even self-driving cars, adding to the ugly traffic snarls.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle also comes to play here.
Essentially, his principle is that the act of measuring something will often tend to impact the very thing you are measuring.
In the case of self-driving cars, human drivers in ordinary cars nearby a self-driving car are bound to change their driving behavior due to realizing they are next to a self-driving car.
Initially, these human drivers will perhaps give a wider berth to the self-driving car, which likely means a worsening of traffic, and lamentably does less good for the Machine Learning aspects of a driverless car due to the artificially created gentleness fostered in local driving behaviors.
Los Angeles drivers though are pretty much used to all kinds of spectacles on our roadways, including dropped couches, ladders, standalone toilets oddly sitting on the roadway, wandering animals such as a family of ducks and a small herd of cattle, etc.
We become immune to seeing something that surprises us.
Once the self-driving cars have been doting around for a while, the odds are that these roving wonderment’s will get the same treatment as any other car on the roadway. This means those driverless cars will rudely get cut off in traffic and treated like an enemy of the roadway, since we tend to believe that all other drivers are dolts (human or otherwise) and nearby cars are merely irritants standing in our own way to get expeditiously to where we want to go.
Dudes and dudettes, give Waymo a chance, and as a tip for Waymo, it’s up to you to become a bona fide Angeleno, taking Los Angeles not by storm but instead as a welcome relief to a future whereby we might have less snarled traffic, fewer adverse car-related incidents, and be riding around our La La Land, joyfully singing and cherishing our fine weather while cruising in true self-driving cars.