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Court documents accidentally reveal costs for the company's self-driving car project between 2009 and 2015

Google Has Spent Over $1.1 Billion on Self-Driving Tech

Google has never publicly shared how much it spends on its self-driving cars. At first, Project Chauffeur was hidden away in Google’s ultra-secret X moonshot program. When that went public, its costs were bundled together in a vague “Other Bets” category that includes the company’s fiber Internet service, home automation, and life science spin-offs.

Now, a court filing in Waymo’s epic and ongoing lawsuit against Uber has accidentally revealed just how big a bet Google placed on autonomous vehicles. Between Project Chauffeur’s inception in 2009 and the end of 2015, Google spent $1.1 billion on developing its self-driving software and hardware, according to a recent deposition of Shawn Bananzadeh, a financial analyst at Waymo.

Bananzadeh was testifying as part of the lawsuit, in which Uber stands accused misappropriating trade secrets and violating patents from Waymo, Google’s self-driving-car offshoot. Because Waymo has yet to commercialize any of its technology in a meaningful way, the company thinks any damages in the case should be calculated on the basis of how much it spent building the technology in question.

When asked by an Uber lawyer how an estimate for developing one of the trade secrets, number 90, was arrived at, Bananzadeh replied: “My understanding is that it is a cost that captures the entire program spend from inception to the period of time where it stops.” He later clarified that meant from 2009, when Sebastian Thrun got the go-ahead for the project from Larry Page, to the end of 2015.

Throughout Bananzadeh’s deposition, every dollar amount was redacted to protect Waymo’s confidential commercial information. Every time, that is, except in the Uber lawyer’s very next question: “The calculation that was the basis of the $1.1 billion cost estimate for Trade Secret 90 is the same calculation that was done for Trade Secret 2 and Trade Secret 25?”

Waymo had apparently given an identical $1.1 billion cost estimate for each of the trade secrets being discussed. Bananzadeh was unable to provide a clear answer as to why that might be, except to say, “Insofar as it is part of the entirety of this self-driving system…. therefore, all of the costs of the program since inception… are what then informs that number.”

Waymo’s position seems to be that all of its trade secrets are inextricably linked to the whole self-driving car project, and any damages should reflect that fact.

In a filing, Otto Trucking called Waymo’s damages theory “entirely speculative” and “over the top,” and called on the court to forbid Waymo from offering any evidence or argument beyond the actual damages it has incurred.

Though $1.1 billion is unquestionably a massive figure, it actually seems quite reasonable compared to the recent over-heated market for self-driving car acquisitions. In March 2016, General Motors paid a billion for San Francisco–based Cruise Automation, a company that was a seller of after-market semi-autonomous vehicle kits. In February of this year, Ford invested the same amount in a joint venture with Argo AI, a two-month-old Pittsburgh start-up headed by a former Google self-driving car engineer. The largest self-driving acquisition to date, however, was Intel’s $15.3 billion purchase of Mobileye in March. The Israeli company had originally provided vision-based semi-autonomous technology for Tesla vehicles.

Uber shelled out a reported $680 million for self-driving truck maker Otto in August 2016, sight almost unseen. But it’s the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of Otto, and in particular its lidar technology, that are at the heart of Waymo’s case against Uber. Otto’s founder, Anthony Levandowski, allegedly had a draft contract for the purchase of the company before he even quit Google.

By spending its money earlier than others and mostly in-house, Google’s billion-dollar investment now looks relatively modest—almost a bargain. Waymo has, by far, the most sophisticated self-driving software. It has simulated over a billion miles of driving, and its cars have had the most self-driving experience on real streets (over 3 million miles in multiple cities).

The court case seems to suggest that Waymo has also built up an enviably solid platform of intellectual property. So, undesirable as this peek into its books might be for Google today, the company should pride itself on demonstrating that in-house R&D can still make a lot of financial sense.

A blue, medium-sized truck with the words "eCanter Powered by Positive Energy" on the side

Daimler Unveils First All-Electric Truck

Daimler unveiled the world’s first series production, all-electric truck at a gala launch in New York City yesterday.

The Fuso eCanter, a blocky, medium-duty truck made by Daimler’s Mitsubishi Fuso, was driven across town to emerge from behind a barrier amid a stream of bubbles and a crescendo of music. That made it impossible to take note of the truck’s most salient feature: its silence.

“How quiet is it?” I asked Marc Llistosella, the chief executive of Mitsubishi Fuso.

“Too quiet,” he responded. “We need a beep tone in early mornings and late evenings” to alert pedestrians to the truck’s presence.

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A photo shows the black interior of a hot pink car, and a sign with the Lyft logo mounted to the dashboard.

Lyft and Drive.ai Gear Up to Test Autonomous Ride Sharing

Most autonomous car companies see ridesharing and taxi services as the clearest way for fully autonomous vehicles to become useful and cost effective. Unsurprisingly, ridesharing companies (whose largest expense is paying human drivers) are in enthusiastic agreement. Lyft in particular has formed partnerships with GM’s Cruise Automation, Waymo, and nuTonomy.

Last week, Lyft announced a new autonomous vehicle partnership, this time with Drive.ai, who plans to deploy their deep learning-based autonomous vehicles in and around San Francisco.

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An illustration shows a woman with short hair wearing sunglasses and elaborate green earrings in front of a pink background.

Could a Pair of Earrings Hurt Waymo’s Lidar Trade Secrets Lawsuit?

A big part of Waymo’s trade secrets case against Uber and self-driving truck startup Otto Trucking is that the company takes protecting its technology very seriously.

“All networks hosting Waymo’s confidential and proprietary information [are] encrypted and [require] passwords and dual-authentication for access,” read its original complaint, in which it accused engineer Anthony Levandowski of downloading 14,000 of those secret files about lidar and other technologies. “Computers, tablets, and cell phones… are encrypted, password protected, and subject to other security measures. And Waymo secures its physical facilities by restricting access and then monitoring actual access with security cameras and guards.”

However, according to a recent court filing, Waymo also turns its secret lidar circuit boards into jewelry and gives them away to employees leaving to work for rivals.

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Nissan Motor Co's revamped Leaf electric vehicle is displayed at the Makuhari Messe on September 6, 2017 in Chiba, Japan

Nissan’s Next-Gen Leaf Drives Farther, Thinks Deeper

Nissan was the first big car maker to offer an all-electric car and the first to give driverless technology its full commitment (as boldly asserted by then-CEO Carlos Ghosn). But this year Tesla and Chevrolet invaded the company’s niche by offering electric cars at comparable prices but with superior range and self-driving features.

The new Leaf answers all these challenges. Still, it can no longer claim to be the firstest with the mostest.

It was indeed first when it introduced the Leaf, back in 2010. True, Tesla had begun selling the all-electric Roadster two years earlier, but at US $100,000 that car was more in the way of a proof of principle. Nissan’s Leaf cost around US $35,000. And, with the continuing evolution of Nissan’s ProPilot driver-assistance package, the company has always been high up in the robocar peloton.

But Tesla’s new Model 3 costs no more yet can go some 350 kilometers (220 miles) on a charge. And the Chevrolet Bolt—also in the mid-$30k price range—goes a whopping 380 km. Both the Model 3 and the Bolt offer a suite of self-driving features, albeit some of the coolest ones come only as options.

The new Leaf has a battery pack rated at 40 kilowatt-hours, up from 30 kWh. That’ll take you a solid 240 kilometers (150 miles)—enough, Nissan says, to quell the range anxiety of customers in Asia and Europe. A performance version, due out in early 2018, will have 60 kWh and travel 480 km (300 miles), which ought to assuage the anxieties of American drivers.

The updated Leaf also offers a more ambitious edition of ProPilot, its answer to Tesla’s AutoPilot. The system can take over the entire job of parking and of driving in slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic and along single-lane roads. And in the Leaf all these features are standard.

And there’s one thing that no other company does: single-pedal driving. Press down and the car accelerates; lift your foot and it brakes. According to Automotive News, it’s an improved form of a similar system in the Nissan Note e-Power, a hybrid vehicle sold in Japan.

The winning driverless car

The Tech That Won the First Formula Student Driverless Race

Engineering student Manuel Dangel of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and teammates were walking the racecourse at Formula Student Driverless in Hockenheimring, Germany, earlier this month when they realized that the computerized wheelbarrow they were using to map the course had gone haywire. [See "Students Race Driverless Cars in Germany in Formula Student Competition" 16 August 2017.]

As part of the track-drive event, one of several events that make up the entire competition, the rules permit teams half an hour to walk the racecourse and make measurements they might need to program their driverless cars. Because the track-drive event consists of ten solo laps on the same, unchanging course among traffic cones, “the basic strategy is to run within the map,” Dangel says. If you cannot make a map before the event, though, you have to switch to a more complex strategy.

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rloop pod

Active Levitation Championed by rLoop in this Weekend's Hyperloop Competition

Most teams at Sunday’s Hyperloop competition will use passive magnetic fields to levitate their pods inside the mile-long test track outside SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. The forward movement of the pod induces the necessary electromagnetic field.

But rLoop, a virtual network of engineers from around the world, is following an active strategy: Its pods will levitate under their own power. Project manager Brent Lessard admits that it’s an energy-hungry solution, but he contends that it alone can lead to commercialization of a futuristic—some would say far out—concept for mass transportation. The idea is to send passenger-carrying pods hurtling at near-sonic speeds through a tube held under a partial vacuum.

“We are not in this necessarily to win the competition but to develop Hyperloop technology,” he says. “You will see pods there that are just built for speed—railguns, essentially. We focus on a scalable pod, and one that would be capable of carrying a passenger or cargo.”

By making the pod self-sufficient, the design allows the tube to do nothing much beyond hold a partial vacuum, one roughly the same as an airliner experiences at high altitudes. Even that requirement slows the competition, though, because every time a pod has to be removed and another put in its place the tube must be repressurized, then depressurized.

The costs of having an active, energy-gobbling pod should be offset by the cost savings of infrastructure that’s relatively easy to build and maintain. And those costs may matter a lot if the plan involves tunneling deep underground, as SpaceX founder and Hyperloop impresario Elon Musk plans to do.

In the previous round of Hyperloop competition, in January, rLoop didn’t even get a chance to make a trial run because there wasn’t enough time and space to accommodate all the entries, Lessard says. The winner was a student-led team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Still, rLoop did win a “pod innovation” award—a tip of the hat to rLoop’s focus on practicality. If indeed it’s competing three days from now (27 August) against purpose-designed missiles, it may have to content itself with another such honorable mention.

The pod measures 1.5 meters high (5 feet), 1 m wide, and 4 m long; it weighs 440 kilograms (970 pounds). In Sunday’s race, the motive power will be provided by an external source, but the hovering will be supported by two battery packs. They consist of 18 modules with six cells each, for a total of 4 kilowatt-hours, Lessard says.

Those batteries power 8 hover engines, each an array of magnets on a motor, the movement of which creates eddy currents which, in turn, produce an electromagnetic field. The engines are on gimbals, to control the pod’s flight—something passive levitation schemes can’t do.

And the pod stays up no matter what happens in the tube. In fact, rLoop’s pod can even levitate its way out of a tube, provided there’s a copper or aluminum sheet under it. And if there isn’t, it can rely on its four wheels, each of which comes with its own electric motor.

All those moving electrons give off waste heat, of course. To cool the motor, the rLoop design uses liquid carbon dioxide; to cool the batteries, it uses a waxy material that liquefies during a run. Then, in the station, it can give up that heat by again assuming a solid form.

Because rLoop’s more than 1000 participating engineers hail from 50-plus countries, most of them had never met before the first part of the competition. “For the second part we did meet to build a prototype,” Lessard says. “We raised more than US $60,000 and partnered with TE Connectivity, which provided a lot of engineering help and also a place to work, in Menlo Park, Calif. We worked the same way we did in the first part, with online people giving advice to people in California. Some of them also came on vacation or on theirs weekend off.”

photo of UAS Augsburg's driverless car on track during Formula Student Germany competition

Students Race Driverless Cars in Germany in Formula Student Competition

More than a dozen teams brought driverless cars to the Formula Student competition last week in Hockenheimring, Germany. It was the first event of its type, but many participants were diligent veterans of Formula Student Electric races and had tested their cars at different types of sites leading up to the main event. “We knew from the electric season that testing is really crucial,” says Manuel Dangel, vice-president of the Formula Student Driverless team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Then the rain started falling.

“We thought [our car] would basically fail,” Dangel says. While it had rained on one of their test days, their car’s main way of determining its own ground speed is an optical sensor optimized for dry ground. The team had not managed to complete a full ten-lap track drive in the rain.

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A smartphone screen with text messages on it. The top of the screen reads "Travis"

Travis Kalanick's and Anthony Levandowski's Texts Tell the Tale of What Uber Knew About Waymo Tech

The epic court case between Waymo and Uber over self-driving car secrets took a tabloid turn last week, as Waymo’s lawyers filed a document containing approximately 400 text messages between Uber founder Travis Kalanick, and Anthony Levandowski, the engineer accused of taking thousands of files from Waymo to help build Uber’s lidar sensors.

Waymo expected the SMS messages, sent between February and December 2016, to reveal what Uber knew, and when the company knew it. Some emails do touch on technical matters—for example, one from Levandowski on 5 May saying that he was “driving to SF to meet with [Uber’s] laser guy and guide the team.”

However, Waymo’s lawyers say that there are “significant and inexplicable gaps” in the text messages, including none at all before February 13, even though the two had certainly met before. Despite this, the texts provide a rich insight into the men’s relationship, and into Uber’s plans for (and worries about) its self-driving car technology.


The Otto Acquisition

Just two weeks after Levandowski quit Google, Kalanick was already visiting the engineer’s new self-driving truck start-up, Otto. Kalanick was planning to buy Otto almost immediately but that fast pace came with issues:

2/13/2016 Kalanick: Good hangin

2/13/2016 Levandowski: It was awesome. Lots more to come. We ended up wrapping truck testing at 2.30

2/13/2016 Levandowski: We had a close call but no contact with anyone or anything

This appears to be a reference to a failure of the self-driving technology that nearly resulted in an accident. Presumably, the testing was happening at a test track, as the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) still does not allow the testing of autonomous commercial vehicles.

4/6/2016 Levandowski: Basically I’d like the freedom to move as needed on the acquisition (and take advice/guidance) but if I can close them within the range we agreed you guys are happy.

4/6/2016 Kalanick: I am super down to make sure this [is] quick lightweight and straight forward for you guys

At this point, Otto was being run from Levandowski’s home in Palo Alto. In early April, the DMV launched an investigation that had Levandowski and Kalanick worried.

4/22/2016 Kalanick: How did they find out?

4/22/2016 Levandowski: Trying to dig in, likely city of Palo Alto.

4/22/2016 Levandowski: Just wrapped with the DMV, it was the city of Palo Alto freaking out about AV trucks testing and were asked to investigate. The guys were happy with our answers and were [sic] in the clear.


Levandowski and Kalanick’s Relationship

The two men quickly formed a strong bond, but there are challenges—and advantages—when your new best friend is the CEO of the world’s largest start-up.

3/29/2016 Levandowski: I am at the secret side door, no rush

7/23/2016 Kalanick: You hungry? .. Can get some Uber Eats steak and eggs.

At these meetings, often late at night, Levandowski would explain the mysteries of self-driving technology to the Uber founder.

4/8/2016 Kalanick: Where you teach me in depth about an autonomy topic

4/8/2016 Levandowski: Yes, we should of done it. We did a bit on lasers before but need to go deep on all the topics.

In return, Kalanick dispensed management advice, such as this just before the Otto acquisition was announced:

8/12/2016 Kalanick: Three principles

8/12/2016 Kalanick: 1) don’t tell anyone about the deal before it happens, ESPECIALLY someone you're about to fire 2) firing fast is a cultural imperative you don't want to break except in the most extreme situations 3) get creative

Both men shared the same ambition:

9/19/2016 Levandowski: We’re going to take over the world

9/19/2016 Levandowski: One robot at a time

10/7/2016 Kalanick: Down to hang this eve and mastermind some shit


Uber Really Wanted to Partner With Google

Uber’s rivalry with Alphabet’s self-driving subsidiary Waymo is a recent thing. An earlier court filing contained an email from 2015 that showed Kalanick and Google founder Larry Page were exploring a partnership on self-driving technology. The new text messages suggest that this was still a hope over a year later.

6/13/2016 Kalanick: Just got word from Drummond that g-CO is out

6/13/2016 Levandowski: Wow, at least now we know it's a zero sum game

David Drummond is Alphabet’s chief legal officer and was a board member of Uber until August 2016. He was the main channel of communication between the companies. “G-co” could refer to cooperation or forming a company with Google, the lack of which cemented the conflict between the two, and ultimately pushed Drummond off the board.


Uber Saw Tesla as a Huge Competitor

While Uber followed Google’s cars closely, it was Tesla and Elon Musk that the duo discussed most frequently.

9/14/2016 Levandowski: Tesla crash in January … implies Elon is lying about millions of miles without incident. We should have LDP on Tesla just to catch all the crashes that are going on.

9/22/2016: We’ve got to start calling Elon on his shit. I'm not on social media but let's start "faketesla" and start give physics lessons about stupid shit Elon says like [saying his cars don’t need lidar]

In late October, the two exchanged a flurry of tests about Musk’s announcement that all Teslas would come with all the hardware necessary for full self-driving, sometimes called Level 5.

10/20/2016 Levandowski: Elon is going to make going to [self driving] not as big of a scary thing for the public... which should be good

10/20/2016 Kalanick: Got to get software runnin

10/20/2016 Levandowski: Amen

10/20/2016 Kalanick: What do you think chances are he has Level 5 in 20% of a given city?

10/20/2016 Levandowski: For easy city

10/20/2016 Levandowski: He's trippin' but might/will blame regulatory as to why it's not available


Did Uber’s Cars Have Real Problems in San Francisco?

In December 2016, Uber launched a self-driving taxi service in San Francisco, without obtaining permission from the DMV. The program lasted only a week, and was dogged by reports of Uber’s 16 cars running red lights. A single text from Levandowski to Kalanick, two days before Uber’s cars had their registrations revoked by the DMV, refers to the issue:

12/19/2016 Levandowski: Quick update on that special intersection in SF, we taped 6 red car violations within 2 hours

A source close to Uber’s operations says its engineers watched the intersection where Uber’s cars were said to have run the red light, and that this text refers to them recording a number of normal, human-operated vehicles also breaking the law. Uber has never officially admitted that its software was to blame.

This post was corrected on 15 August 2017 to fix the context of a 12/19/2016 message and on 16 August 2017 to correct the October text message dates.

A black satellite in a white room appears to have a small nose and prominent ears

Sapcorda Plans Centimeter-Scale GPS for Europe

Germany’s Bosch and Geo++, U-blox of Switzerland, and Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric announced the establishment of Sapcorda Services last Tuesday, a joint venture to provide global navigation satellite system (GNSS) positioning services of centimeter-level accuracy via satellite transmission, mobile cellular technology, and the Internet.

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Cars That Think

IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.
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