Winnipeg Free Press

Being schooled by grand theft auto

by Dana Hull  . Apr 22 2017
Rockstar Games / The Associated PressEngineers are using the video game Grand Theft Auto V, above, as a simulator for driverless cars.

Rockstar Games / The Associated Press

Engineers are using the video game Grand Theft Auto V, above, as a simulator for driverless cars.

IN the race to the autonomous revolution, car developers have realized there aren’t enough hours in a day to clock the real-world mileage needed to teach vehicles how to drive themselves. Which is why Grand Theft Auto V is in the mix.

The hit video game is one of the simulation platforms researchers and engineers increasingly rely on to test and train the machines being primed to take control of the family sedan.

Companies from Ford Motor Co. to Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo may boast about putting no-hands models on the market in three years, but there’s a lot still to learn about drilling algorithms on how to respond when, say, a mattress falls off a truck on the freeway.

If automakers and tech enterprises want to make their deadline, they have to hurry up. Test cars tricked out with lasers, sensors and cameras being put through the paces on tracks and public roads can’t do it on their own.

Simulators never run out of gas — and the ones at Waymo can model driving millions of kilometres in a day.

“With simulation, you can run the same scenario over and over again for infinite times, then test it again,” said Davide Bacchet, who leads the simulation effort in San Jose, Calif., for Nio.

As improbable as it may seem to the lay person, hyper-realistic video games are able to generate data that’s very close to what artificial-intelligence agents can glean on the road.

Last year, scientists from Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany and Intel Labs developed a way to pull visual information from Grand Theft Auto V. Now some researchers are deriving algorithms from GTAV software that’s been tweaked for use in the burgeoning self-driving sector.

The latest in the franchise from publisher Rockstar Games Inc. is just about as good as reality, with 262 types of vehicles, more than 1,000 different unpredictable pedestrians and animals, 14 weather conditions and countless bridges, traffic signals, tunnels and intersections. (The hoodlums, heists and accumulated corpses aren’t crucial components.)

The idea isn’t that the byways of the fictional city of Los Santos would ever be a substitute for real asphalt. But the game “is the richest virtual environment we could extract data from,” said Alain Kornhauser, a Princeton professor who advises the university’s Autonomous Vehicle Engineering team.

Waymo uses its simulators to create a confounding motoring situation for every variation engineers can think of: three cars changing lanes at the same time at an assortment of speeds and directions, for instance.

What’s learned virtually is applied physically, and problems encountered on the road are studied in simulation.

Whenever a human has to grab the wheel of a test car because self-driving software hasn’t responded properly “we’re able to play back the exact situation and predict via simulation what could have happened if the car had been left to drive itself,” Waymo said in a self-driving project report.

“If the simulator shows better driving is called for, our engineers can make refinements to the software, and run those changes in simulation in order to test the fixes.”

— Bloomberg News