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Self-Driving Cars Are Learning From GTAV

Lessons from Los Santos for some of the top autonomous software companies.

Think about the last time you played a Grand Theft Auto game. Whether you’re level 250 in the latest iteration of GTA Online or you haven’t picked up a controller since the PlayStation 2 days, chances are your last visit to Rockstar’s chaotic world involved a whole lot of automotive hi-jinks that would likely earn you a quick trip to the slammer in real life.

So it’s understandable if you’re maybe just a little bit concerned at the news that some of the top self-driving car developers are turning to GTAV to power their simulators and teach their software the virtual rules of the road.

Waymo and Toyota Research won’t be turning their autonomous cars loose on the streets of Los Santos to maim and murder innocent civilians any time soon. But according to Bloomberg, rather than emulating a caffeine-crazed teen crashing through traffic, these firms are taking advantage of the game’s incredibly detailed environment to run traffic, weather, and accident-avoidance simulations. Accumulated over the course of millions of in-game miles driven, the resulting bounty of information would otherwise take years to collect on real-life public roads. In fact, one researcher with Princeton University called GTAV “the richest virtual environment that we could extract data from.”

Simulators are becoming a key part of autonomous vehicle development as red tape and legal challenges have limited the spread of real-world testing to just a few states. Engineer Davide Bacchet with the self-driving startup NIO told Bloomberg that it’s just “not practical” to rely solely on the public tests to teach their software everything it needs to know to rise to an acceptable standard, adding that the ability to replay the same exact scenario over and over again is key for learning the correct course of action. Whether it’s completing a contested highway merge in a blinding rainstorm or dodging another car that’s run a red light, the GTA-powered simulators are giving these companies a leg up as they move towards production models in the next few years.

Of course, there’s still one unresolved issue with this whole concept—will lawmakers and regulators accept all those virtual miles as an acceptable substitute for real-world testing when determining whether or not to green-light an autonomous car? Grand Theft Auto may have over 250 vehicles, thousands of pedestrians, and a pretty decent weather system, but the value these simulators provide can really only be proven publicly when a self-driving car hits the physical road. Then again, as open-world games get more complex, so too will the results provide.