This week, General Motors CEO Mary Barra touted the automaker's ability to mass-produce autonomous vehicles after 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolts rolled off the line at the company's Orion Assembly plant north of Detroit. The day before, Waymo announced that it was retiring its "Firefly" pod car after expanding its fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans to 600 vehicles. Both developments seem to boost GM and Waymo in a self-driving benchmark: autonomous miles traveled on public roads.
But there's more to leading the pack than racking up self-driving miles. Some automakers are recording miles without tracking what's happening while the car is driving. And others are not putting the vehicles through challenging enough situations.
At a conference this week on autonomous vehicle development hosted by tech news site The Information, NuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma stressed the importance of collecting "robust" miles. The self-driving software startup is testing vehicles on roads in Singapore and Boston. "You want miles in new environments that are significantly rich," Iagnemma said. "The slot car model, where you can drive around in a loop in Mountain View making only right turns, you can rack up a lot of miles driven in between takeovers but it doesn't mean your car is very capable."
Carol Reiley, president of Drive.ai, a startup developing artificial intelligence for self-driving cars, called miles driven a "vanity metric," adding that high mileage doesn't help development unless the data are labeled — marked to identify pedestrians, street signs and other traffic — to train the vehicle. "We've learned that the bottleneck in the industry isn't miles driven, it's miles annotated," she said, adding that it can take some companies up to 800 hours to label one mile of driving experience.
Real-world driving miles are obviously crucial to the development of self-driving cars. But the leaders in the industry will stand out by the quality of miles they drive, in addition to the quantity of miles driven.
— Katie Burke