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Autonomous Vehicles Learn By Playing Video Games

In Ford’s Palo Alto Research Center, researchers are using video game systems to speed up the way autonomous vehicle software learns

1 min read
Autonomous Vehicles Learn By Playing Video Games
Photo: Tekla Perry

On a large TV screen at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto this week, a robotic humanoid figure was outrunning a four-wheel drive car, cutting in front of it unexpectedly, and, at one point, forcing the car up onto a sidewalk to avoid it. The humanoid figure ran much faster and turned far more quickly than a real human could.

“We’re trying to frustrate our system,” explained researcher Tory Smith.

Smith is part of a group using virtual environments built with game development tools o create action sequences that are then fed into machine learning systems. In this way, researchers hope to teach autonomous vehicle software to better handle situations the cars encounter on the road. (By the way, that day is coming soon; Ford CEO Mark Fields announced that Ford just got permission to begin testing its autonomous vehicle prototypes on California streets in 2016.)

Using virtual environments, said researcher Ashley Micks, dramatically increased the speed of learning. “What took us 10 days now takes 20 minutes,” she said.

Ford researchers have developed a version of their simulation software to run on mobile phones as well as large game systems. “We can hand the mobile version to random people on the street,” Smith said. That’s useful, he says, because outsiders “can think of weird things to do to challenge the vehicle” that never occurred to the research team.

It’s not just dodging pedestrians that can be learned in a gaming environment; the software can pick up all sorts of knowledge, including, for example, how to figure out where the lanes are when there are no lane markings in a road.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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