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Inside Waymo's Secret World for Training Self-Driving Cars

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In a corner of Alphabet’s campus, there is a team working on a piece of software that may be the key to self-driving cars. No journalist has ever seen it in action until now. They call it Carcraft, after the popular game World of Warcraft, reported The Atlantic.

The software’s creator, a shaggy-haired, baby-faced young engineer named James Stout, is sitting next to me in the headphones-on quiet of the open-plan office. On the screen is a virtual representation of a roundabout. To human eyes, it is not much to look at: a simple line drawing rendered onto a road-textured background. We see a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica at medium resolution and a simple wireframe box indicating the presence of another vehicle.

Months ago, a self-driving car team encountered a roundabout like this in Texas. The speed and complexity of the situation flummoxed the car, so they decided to build a look-alike strip of physical pavement at a test facility. And what I’m looking at is the third step in the learning process: the digitization of the real-world driving. Here, a single real-world driving maneuver—like one car cutting off the other on a roundabout—can be amplified into thousands of simulated scenarios that probe the edges of the car’s capabilities.

Scenarios like this form the base for the company’s powerful simulation apparatus. “The vast majority of work done—new feature work—is motivated by stuff seen in simulation,” Stout tells me. This is the tool that’s accelerated the development of autonomous vehicles at Waymo, which Alphabet (née Google) spun out of its “moon-shot” research wing, X, in December of 2016.

If Waymo can deliver fully autonomous vehicles in the next few years, Carcraft should be remembered as a virtual world that had an outsized role in reshaping the actual world on which it is based.

Originally developed as a way to “play back” scenes that the cars experienced while driving on public roads, Carcraft, and simulation generally, have taken on an ever-larger role within the self-driving program.

At any time, there are now 25,000 virtual self-driving cars making their way through fully modeled versions of Austin, Mountain View, and Phoenix, as well as test-track scenarios. Waymo might simulate driving down a particularly tricky road hundreds of thousands of times in a single day.
Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

The simulations are part of an intricate process that Waymo has developed. They’ve tightly interwoven the millions of miles their cars have traveled on public roads with a “structured testing” program they conduct at a secret base in the Central Valley they call Castle.

Waymo has never unveiled this system before. The miles they drive on regular roads show them areas where they need extra practice. They carve the spaces they need into the earth at Castle, which lets them run thousands of different scenarios in situ. And in both kinds of real-world testing, their cars capture enough data to create full digital recreations at any point in the future. In that virtual space, they can unhitch from the limits of real life and create thousands of variations of any single scenario, and then run a digital car through all of them. As the driving software improves, it’s downloaded back into the physical cars, which can drive more and harder miles, and the loop begins again.

Read more at theatlantic.com

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