Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Hard Problems

One reason I pick on Elon Musk specifically is that he obviously has absolutely no idea what the difficult problems of his pet project are. A good example is parking lots. Elon thought that even before he unleashed his "turn your car into a robotaxi with just a software update" onto the world that he could have a useful parking lot summons system. Basically you walk out of the Wal-Mart, hit a button, and your car pulls out of the spot and drives up to where you are waiting for it. Not all that useful of a feature, but ok it's "neato" and "neato" drives a lot of this stuff, so to speak. But parking lots are hard! Sure they have the slight advantage of (hopefully) only low speed driving, but they also don't have any consistent lane and sign markings or clear paths for pedestrians (though it's a parking lot, people not using the neato feature still gotta walk to their cars). They rely a lot on nonverbal communication (eye contact, waves, etc.) between drivers. Far from being the easiest problem, they're actually probably the hardest! And not only that, they're a *specific* hard problem. Solving that problem isn't going to help you all that much with all of the other ones. Not directly, at least.
A left turn is a tricky maneuver, but the driving environment itself is also a factor in what kind of obstacles the human—or the self-driving car—might encounter. A two-lane road on a sunny day with clearly painted lines and scant traffic offers an easy landscape. But an Ikea parking lot on a Saturday afternoon? Ouch.

In fact, parking lots are a distinctive enough environment that Waymo, the self-driving car company that’s a sibling to Google, specifically trains its vehicles to deal with them by setting up real-world scenarios in a controlled environment. We spoke with Waymo engineers to learn more about how.
Waymo might not solve the problem, but at least they get that it's a *hard one.* Modern construction suburban Arizona and California driving is probably fairly easy by the standards of these things - certainly relative to here in the urban hellhole - but good luck navigating those parking lots!