ShareThis Page
Google drives automakers back to school |

Google drives automakers back to school

Automakers didn’t build the self-driving car: Google did. That’s a big problem for them. Hoping to catch up, Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen are betting on academics. Along with Nvidia, Samsung, Qualcomm and Panasonic, they’re each giving $300,000 to the University of California at Berkeley to fund artificial intelligence research.

The alliance, called DeepDrive, is a rare moment of AI cooperation among car companies, which are racing one another to create the kind of brains that propel Google’s prototype gumdrop-shaped vehicles around Mountain View. It also highlights the new position universities find themselves in. Their AI lab work is in high demand — and corporations don’t want to wait months or years to get their hands on it.

The companies’ money will go to projects selected by UC-Berkeley. In return, the automakers get to give feedback on research proposals; meet the academics toiling away on the tech; and, thanks to the upfront payment, can commercialize any of the research without having to go through the headache of an additional licensing stage.

“They’ve essentially pre-negotiated access to software,” said Trevor Darrell, a professor at the university who leads DeepDrive. In corporate terms, $300,000 may not seem like a lot of money, but altogether the donations will back between 20 and 30 graduate students a year.

It’s a cheap way for the companies to get a bead on a dangerous, unpredictable future. “If vehicle manufacturers, five years from now, haven’t been to the drawing boards to figure out how to get self-driving tech into their cars, then those companies will be left out,” said Thilo Koslowski,top car analyst at the research firm Gartner. “It’s that dramatic.” For UC-Berkeley, it’s an opportunity to get funding without having to delay publication at the behest of a sponsor. That’s the normal protocol for corporate-backed research, where companies can ask to review results prior to general publication, delaying publication for months — or more.

Openness has become a big deal in artificial intelligence as the pace of research speeds up. No one wants to be caught reinventing the wheel (or the car). With DeepDrive, the university “can have open research with no publication restrictions, no lock down of early review for patenting, so the research can move as fast as it possibly can,” Darrell says.

It also gives the university a way to test its theoretical ideas in the real world, says Pieter Abbeel, a professor at UC- Berkeley and one of the principal investigators at DeepDrive. “We do all this research, but unless you do a startup where’s it going to go?” Abbeel said.

Through the project, UC-Berkeley researchers could get access to driving data from the companies and be able to run their software on the automakers’ vehicle simulators, letting them test out new approaches without risking crashing real cars, he said.

The types of problems DeepDrive’s researchers will tackle read like an index page from a science fiction novel: custom semiconductors for vision systems, software to predict how a pedestrian will behave; AI that can drive in unusual terrain; techniques that let machines learn from human drivers.

DeepDrive is emblematic of the new interest in university research projects around artificial intelligence and robotics, says Andrew Moore, the dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s school of computer science and a former Google employee. “We’ve hit this inversion where the stuff the universities are doing is applicable right now to industry,” he said.

Typically, university research needs to be adapted for specific industries or problem areas. That’s not the case with the current crop of AI technology, which is generating such excitement because it can be applied easily and quickly to new areas.

“It’s a real boom time,” Moore said. Google and Facebook regularly turn research papers into products in a matter of months, as opposed to years. In 2014, Uber partnered with Carnegie Mellon to develop self-driving car technology. By 2015 it had hired away academics from the lab.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.