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This super realistic virtual world is a training school for self-driving cars



You can train all kinds of things faster in simulation – often billions of times faster. Which then accelerates the overall rate of innovation.


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Here’s a question for you … how do you train anything to do new things or recognise new things at extreme speed? The answer is you train them in simulated worlds, and so far this technique has helped teams across the world train robots, vehicles, and other AI’s which have then gone on to make their own tools in hours that otherwise would have taken them in some cases hundreds of years.


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Building driverless cars is a slow and expensive business. After years of effort and billions of dollars of investment, the technology is still stuck in the pilot phase, and like many future focused firms Raquel Urtasun thinks she can do better.


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Last year, frustrated by the pace of the industry Urtasun left Uber where she led the ride-hailing firm’s self-driving research for four years, to set up her own company, called Waabi.

“Right now most approaches to self-driving are just too slow to make progress,” says Urtasun, who divides her time between the driverless-car industry and the University of Toronto. “We need a radically different one.”


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Waabi has now revealed the controversial new shortcut to autonomous vehicles that Urtasun is betting on. The big idea? Ditch the cars.

For the last six months Waabi has been building a super-realistic virtual environment, called Waabi World. Instead of training an AI driver in real vehicles, Waabi plans to do it almost entirely inside the simulation. The plan is that the AI won’t be tested in real vehicles on real roads until a final round of fine-tuning.


See the world for yourself


The problem is that for an AI to learn to handle the chaos of real roads, it has to be exposed to the full range of events that it might encounter. That’s why driverless-car firms have spent the last decade driving millions of miles on streets around the world. A few, like Cruise and Waymo, have begun testing vehicles without human drivers in a handful of quiet urban environments in the US. But progress is still slow.


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“Why haven’t we seen an expansion of these small pilots? Why aren’t those vehicles everywhere?” asks Urtasun.

Urtasun makes bold claims for the head of a company that not only hasn’t road-tested its tech, but doesn’t even have any vehicles. But by avoiding most of the costs of testing the software on real streets, she hopes to build an AI driver more quickly and cheaply than her competitors, giving the whole industry a much-needed boost.

Waabi is not the first company to develop realistic virtual worlds to test self-driving software. In the last few years, simulation has increasingly become a mainstay for driverless-car firms including companies such as Tesla and Toyota. But the question is whether simulation alone will be enough to help the industry overcome the final technical barriers that have stopped it from becoming a viable proposition.


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“No one has yet built the Matrix for self-driving cars,” says Jesse Levinson, cofounder and CTO of Zoox, an autonomous-vehicle startup bought by Amazon in 2020.

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