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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Simulation is a crucial tool in the development of self-driving cars, but it has constraints, especially regarding the speed at which it takes in data and makes decisions.

Why it matters: In the absence of significant amounts of data from autonomous vehicle road testing, companies like Waymo, Uber and Tesla are investing in self-driving simulations, with billions of miles in virtual simulation tested to-date.

How it works: Speed plays a critical role in simulations, because if sensing does not keep up with the rate at which events actually happen, it limits the vehicle’s ability to respond effectively to critical real-time, rate-dependent phenomena and adapt its driving pattern accordingly.

  • Additionally, if a simulation does not process an event quickly enough, it could lose track of how the consequences of key events affect future behavior, leading to a loss of fidelity in both data and control of the vehicle.

Between the lines: In a research setting, advanced cameras in vehicles with automated features typically capture images at a speed of up to 300 frames-per-second, and this speed informs simulations.

  • But cameras in anticipated road models are more likely work at just 30 frames-per-second and this 30 millisecond lag-time is significant, as it limits the ability of a vehicle to identify and respond to an event in near real-time.
  • Meanwhile, dense urban environments filled with pedestrians, unusual traffic patterns, and construction increase the amount of computation that needs to occur nearly instantaneously.
  • Additionally, as the technology in vehicles catches up to and surpasses what it is used in simulations, current simulation data might be rendered obsolete.

The bottom line: Data from varying sources, simulations included, will be crucial to getting AVs safely on the roadways — but simulation technology can improve when it comes to speed, and those improvements will yield better data and stronger AV training.

Chris Gill is a professor at Washington University's McKelvey School of Engineering. 

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood

A map depicting 24-hour preciptation forecast (inches) ending Monday at 5a.m. local time. Photo: NOAA

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are set dump historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves to be removed after fires

A firefighter looks up at a giant sequoia tree after fire burned through the Sequoia National Forest near California Hot Springs, California, on Sept. 23. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"Upwards of" 10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves have been "weakened by drought, disease, age, and/or fire" and must be removed in the wake of California's wildfires, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks announced.

Why it matters: The damage to these trees, considered "national treasures," and work to remove them means a nearby key highway must remain closed to visitors as they have "the potential to strike people, cars, other structures, or create barriers to emergency response services," per a statement from the national parks.

Obama stumps for McAuliffe, urges Virginians not "to go back to the chaos"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama framed a Nov. 2 gubernatorial race as a bellwether for the Democratic Party and the country, telling a crowd at a campaign event for Terry McAuliffe on Saturday that "I believe you, right here in Virginia, are going to show the rest of the country and the world that we're not going to indulge in our worst instincts."

Why it matters: With just over a week to go before Election Day in the Commonwealth, McAuliffe is bringing out the big guns. The 44th president appeared on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to urge supporters to get to the polls.