By Peter Henderson
WILLOWS, Calif. (Reuters) – Nine self-driving cars did not quite zoom around a 2-mile (3.2-km) course in Northern California over the weekend in a race involving students and entrepreneurs from startup companies where the real goal was just to make it around the track.
Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, Uber and major auto companies are competing to create the technology for an autonomous revolution that could reorder the car industry and transform transportation.
The goals were more modest for contenders at the Thunderhill West race course, about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, in the second challenge of Self Racing Cars. All cars competing had a driver behind the wheel to intervene if necessary, and only four of the nine made it around the curvy course without human help.
Location services startup Point One was the unofficial winner when its car got around the track in three minutes and 37.9 seconds.
The cars took individual turns on the track over the course of the event on Saturday and Sunday.
“Someday you will be able to see machines do things that people aren’t able to do. Today we are just trying to catch up with your teenage child’s first drive,” said Self Racing Cars organizer Joshua Schachter, a tech entrepreneur. He saw the race as a chance to push the envelope of new technology.
For the small companies and students, the race course offered a large, safe testing environment. Deciding how to slow down for a turn, for instance, is a big question for a car that drives itself, and startups cannot necessarily afford access to a major testing facility without pedestrians.
Some cars used GPS and other location tracking to follow digital maps to get around the course. That was the strategy for Point One, which is making a business of determining location more precisely than GPS.
Students from online education organization Udacity used artificial intelligence to teach driving on the fly, using a car owned by software company PolySync. On a ride around the track on Sunday, the car navigated a few turns on its own, but the human driver regularly yanked the wheel to keep it on the asphalt.
The Bay Area is the center of corporate efforts to build a commercial self-driving car, and test vehicles navigate San Francisco streets with a human behind the wheel.
Some are doing well. Recent state data showed that Waymo cars were traveling about 5,000 miles (8,000 km) between interventions by the person in the driver’s seat.
(Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Peter Cooney)