If we can put a man on the moon, why shouldn’t we be able to put a self-driving car on the freeway?

That’s the question former Berkeley resident and Business Insider transportation editor Alex Davies explores in Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car, published this week by Simon & Schuster.

It may be a stretch to call Davies’ new book The Right Stuff for the Age of the Autonomous Vehicle, but it shares some of Tom Wolfe’s narrative exuberance, pioneer spirit and eye for the telling detail. Davies chronicles the tech industry’s fascination with self-driving vehicles, from their origins in three “Grand Challenges” sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to the attempts by Google, Uber and the city of Detroit to exploit the innovative technology for the auto-buying public.

Driven also chronicles the rise and fall of Berkeley-based engineer/entrepreneur Anthony Levandowski, who built an autonmous motorcycle, worked for Google and then Uber on their autonomous vehicles programs, and was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing trade secrets.

Davies, 32, grew up in a suburb of New York City and graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I didn’t really know what my career would be, the hallmark of getting a liberal arts education, I guess,” he said in a telephone interview with Berkeleyside.

Davies landed a summer internship with Discovery.com’s Treehugger blog and continued to write for them after graduation, while on an English-teaching exchange program in France.

“I was paid a minimum wage (to teach English), but I barely worked any hours,” Davies said. “I had a lot of free time and very little money. I just kept going back to Discovery saying, ‘Let me write more, let me write more.’ I found that I really liked (journalism).”

After returning to the United States and getting his start in transportation journalism at Business Insider in New York, Davies moved to the Bay Area in 2014 to lead transportation coverage at WIRED, writing about, among other things, electric cars, flying cars and self-driving cars.

WIRED laid Davies off in the spring. He moved from Berkeley to Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood with his partner, Tim Wyman-McCarthy, currently a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

“We loved Berkeley a lot, but we were in a one-bedroom apartment,” Davies said. “We figured it would be nice to find (more affordable) space where we could spread out a little bit more and have a dedicated office and a backyard to hang out in.”

At WIRED, in covering autonomous vehicles, Davies saw the same names again and again, including Sebastian Thrun, Chris Urmson, “Red” Whittaker and Anthony Levandowski – many of whom credited their start in the field to a DARPA-sponsored 2004 contest for an autonomous vehicle. With a war in the desert, the thought was to avoid life-threatening targets and reduce the risks to soldiers’ lives.

“I wanted to do an oral history about the first DARPA Grand Challenge,” Davies said. “This crazy event in the desert. All these big names were there when they were graduate students or even undergraduates.”

“I did a series of interviews with people who were there. People had all these great stories about wild robot cars crashing in the desert.” Noting that he had gathered much more material than he could use for the WIRED piece, he said, “I was telling (a friend) yet another story and he said, ‘Really, you should write a book about this.'”

Davies was quick to agree. “Those people in those races became Google’s original (self-driving car) team. Then they spread out to create the self-driving diaspora.”

One figure particularly stands out in the narrative – Levandowski, a UC Berkeley grad who became an engineer/entrepreneur. Levandowski, who rode the autonomous vehicle wave across two decades, established the Berkeley start-up 510 Systems and would end up in a criminal court, accused of stealing trade secrets.

Beginning with the 2004 Grand Challenge, Levandowski attracted a lot of attention by placing his bets on creating a autonomous motorcycle, operating out of a garage in Berkeley. Two-wheel locomotion seemed achievable, even though the bike, christened Ghostrider, fell over almost immediately after it began the race.

Levandowski wasn’t alone in being defeated soundly. None of the entrants finished the first Grand Challenge. “On the face of it, the first race itself was very clearly a failure,” Davies said. “These vehicles were simply not ready to do any kind of race. They’re going all over the place, through barbed wire and getting stuck in bushes and flipping over, catching fire…”

Levandowski was “nowhere near the most brilliant engineer in this book when it comes to robotics and software,” according to Davies. On the other hand, “he’s the most interesting character. He has this Forrest Gump-like propensity for always being in the middle of the action. Every big scene in the self-driving world, Anthony’s in the middle.”

Levandowski signed up for DARPA’s second Grand Challenge in 2005. Although Levandowski’s motorcycle failed to pass the qualifying rounds, this time vehicles actually finished the course.

It was time to leave the desert. In 2007, DAPRA proposed an Urban Challenge, and General Motors supplied $2 million in sponsorship. More of the bigwigs of Silicon Valley were paying attention. Stanford’s entry, dubbed Junior, was the first robot to cross the finish line, but the top prize went to Carnegie Mellon’s Boss.

Davies chronicles the enthusiasm of the autonomous vehicle industry following the DARPA Challenges, though the technology still isn’t ready to replace human-operated vehicles, a fact made more apparent when an Uber AV struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ in March 2018.

“We’re decades away, I think, from a robot that can drive anywhere and everywhere and do it as safely as a human,” Davies said. “But the real success (of the DARPA Challenges) is putting people in the same place and giving them the chance to show that this technology is possible.”

While Davies sees value in using autonomous vehicles in limited circumstances, he cautions against over-enthusiasm.

“My great worry about (AVs) is people say like ‘Oh, we’ve got these great self-driving cars. They’ll never hit anyone, so we’ll just wait for these things to arrive as sort of a panacea for our street safety programs.'”

Reliance on autonomous vehicles is not a good way to attain Vision Zero, Davies said.

“If you want streets safer, slow down cars and make crossing the street easier. Do what Berkeley did at the beginning of the pandemic, which is don’t make someone opt in to getting a walk sign.”

Nor do autonomous vehicles seem equipped to help communities adapt to climate change. Davies doesn’t expect AVs to perform well in extreme weather or facing fire or flood.

“They don’t seem great for it because the technology is at its most practicable in very controlled conditions,” Davies said. “Which is why you see someone saying, okay, we can put a truck on the highway, and we can put a shuttle in this senior community where the speed limit is 25 miles an hour and it’s very controlled.”

Davies said, “A good self-driving truck is probably the application where you’ll see the biggest safety benefit, in those really long-haul distances where the driving isn’t that complex.”

A company called Voyage is working on autonomous shuttle systems for senior communities in Arizona and Florida.

“You have people living where they shouldn’t be driving anymore but they still need to get from their apartment to the pool, to the cafeteria, to the doctor’s office on-site,” Davies said. “These shuttles are a promising way of helping them move around a dedicated space.”

Contemplating the likelihood of autonomous vehicles in Berkeley in a decade, Davies said, “Maybe you will see autonomous cars driving around as ride-hail vehicles. In a city like Berkeley that’s near a big place like San Francisco, residents having routine affordable access to self-driving ride-hail vehicles or taxis ten years from now is perfectly plausible.”

Less believable are the sudden turns of Levandowski’s fortune. After working for Google’s AV program, Waymo, he left to start Otto, an autonomous truck company that Uber eventually acquired. In 2017, Waymo sued Uber, alleging that Levandowski took trade secrets with him when he left.

During this time Davies was researching and writing the story, and Levandowski avoided interviews. After months of pestering Levandowski’s PR agent, and then Levandowski himself, Davies finally connected.

“I think by then, Anthony wanted to get his point of view out there, as his reputation was basically wrecked,” Davies said. “We did long phone calls, and we met at Fournée Bakery in Berkeley, then would walk and talk. He never let me record him.”

In August, Levandowski, 40, who has moved to Marin County, pleaded guilty in federal court to taking confidential documents. He said that as he was leaving Google in 2016, he downloaded thousands of confidential files, some of which contained trade secrets.

“This is the biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen,” U.S. District Court Judge William H. Alsup said as he sentenced Levandowski to 18 months in prison, to begin after the COVID-19 pandemic. “This was not small. This was massive in scale.”

The judge ordered Levandowski to pay a $95,000 fine and $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo.

“There are a lot of people who knew Anthony and said he got what was coming to him,” said Davies “My take is that he’s flirted with breaking the rules so many times in his career that eventually it was going to catch up with him and get him into serious trouble. It did finally happen.”

There’s no Ah-ha! moment in Driven. Progress proceeds in fits and starts and the tragedy of an Uber vehicle striking and killing a jaywalking pedestrian overshadows the visionaries’ accomplishments. With the death of Elaine Herzberg, the first fatality in the search for an autonomous car, research continues at a quieter volume. Google/Waymo persists, but Uber has jettisoned its self-driving business.

“In the last couple of weeks, they sold it to a start-up called Aurora, run by Chris Urmson, Anthony Levandowski’s great rival at Google,” said Davies. “That’s a detail I wish I’d been able to put into my book.”

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

A New Hampshire native, freelancer Michael Berry has been a resident of Berkeley since the early 1980s. A long-time reviewer of science fiction and fantasy for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has written...