The first driverless cars were supposed to be deployed on the roads of American cities in 2019, but just a few days before the end of the year, the lofty promises of car manufacturers and Silicon Valley remain far from becoming reality.
Recent accidents, such as those involving Tesla cars equipped with Autopilot, a driver assistance software, have shown that “the technology is not ready,” said Dan Albert, critic and author of the book “Are We There Yet?” on the history of the American automobile.
He questioned the optimistic sales pitch that autonomous cars would help reduce road deaths – 40,000 every year in the United States, mostly due to human error – because these vehicles themselves have caused deaths.
As a result, self-driving maneuvers in the technology-laden vehicles are limited to parking, braking, starting or driving in a parking lot.
Are autonomous cars on the roads?
Autonomous vehicles have only been deployed in limited test projects in a few cities.
“When you’re working on the large scale deployment of mission critical safety systems, the mindset of ‘move fast and break things’ certainly doesn’t cut it,” said Dan Ammann, CEO of self-driving car company Cruise.
General Motors, Cruise’s parent company, had promised a fleet of autonomous vehicles would be on the roads in 2019.
There are driverless shuttles running on specific routes on university campuses, and Waymo, Google’s autonomous car division, has been offering robotaxi service “Waymo One” for about a year around Phoenix, Arizona.
However, there is a trained driver in the cars to take control in case of emergency.
Waymo is expanding that program, and since the summer it has offered truly driverless service in some Phoenix suburbs that is free in the afternoon and sometimes in the evening.
The company is also teaming up with ride-hailing app Lyft to expand to more areas.
Is the technology ready?
“Automation may be used in areas such as closed campuses, where speeds are low and there is little or no interaction with other vehicles, pedestrians or cyclists or inclement weather,” said Sam Abuelsamid, engineer and expert at Navigant Research.
The big problem is “perception”: the software’s ability to process data sent by the motion sensors to detect other vehicles, pedestrians, animals, cyclists or other objects, and then predict their likely actions and adapt accordingly, he said.
And that part is key, said Avideh Zakhor, engineering and computer science professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
“The perception part is not solved yet. The most advanced publicly available is 80-85 percent (reliable). That means that 15 percent of the time, it’s going to hit objects and kill and destroy them,” she said.
What are the obstacles?
Laws in place in some 40 US states only allow testing of these vehicles. The industry players hope the accumulation of thousands of miles traveled by self-driving vehicles will reassure authorities the technology is safe.
Authorities also will have to adapt road signage to these smart cars.
Contacted by AFP, the main road transportation regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), declined to provide a status update.
When will autonomous cars be on the road?
Not for a few years.
“We should see the deployment of autonomous fleets, likely at a regional level, over the next five years,” according to Aurora, a start-up specializing in autonomous driving supported by Amazon and Fiat Chrysler.
But Navigant’s Abuelsamid said driverless vehicles should be running soon on a small scale.
“We may see some limited numbers in a few locations by mid- to late-2020 with increasing deployments in 2021 and beyond,” he said.
Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, said in late October that his cars will be “able to drive from one’s house to work, most likely without interventions,” although “it will still be supervised.”
Albert, the analyst, told AFP that Tesla may have overpromised, and he cautions that customers who paid $3,500 in advance for the promised fully autonomous features “effectively gave the company a no-interest loan.”
Self-driving cars mean the end of car ownership
Last year, Americans bought 17.3 million new vehicles. None of those were fully autonomous. That’s not about to change overnight. Instead, Jacobs sees an eventual duality, in which personally owned cars exist alongside autonomous robotaxi fleets.
Just because autonomous cars are expensive (the autonomous sensor kit alone runs about $100,000) and not set up for personal ownership (the average driver spends about $7,000 a year on a car altogether and can’t afford the teched-out, high-cost autonomous vehicle) doesn’t mean everyone will ditch their vehicle for access to an autonomous car through a ride-hail service.
Since AVs are so pricey and hard to produce in mass quantities, it’s expected that the only way to use them will be through ride services, like Waymo in Phoenix. You order a self-driving car on an app much like you do an Uber, except there’s no driver.
Demler said that’s “too narrow a view of where personal transportation is today. Everyone thinks you’re going to become a millennial.”
By that he means taking ride-sharing apps, car-shares, e-scooters, and other transportation options to get around without owning a car.
For certain drivers, like those who need to use a pickup truck to haul something, carry a boat, or go surfing, an autonomous car service is more complicated that just ordering a ride through an app since you’ll need something that works for your specific situation.
“These just don’t fit with autonomy,” he said.
Humans won’t ever drive again
Future generations might question why they’d ever want to learn to drive with ride-sharing and robotaxis available. But it’s a gradual social shift to fewer drivers. “It will be something that slowly accelerates,” Jacobs said.
Like horseback riding went from the roads to the farm, eventually (more) cars will go to the track and similar places, where driving enthusiasts will keep human driving alive in the time of autonomy.
Demler is even more critical of a driving-free future. He sees too many use cases where an autonomous ride service doesn’t work.
“Sure,” he sarcastically remarked, “if you never leave the city, go shopping, go on a road trip, or the beach.”
Essentially, too many situations require a human at the wheel — and will for the foreseeable future, he believes.
But it’s not all or nothing. As self-driving cars move onto public roads, the robocars will be riding alongside human drivers.
In this mixed mode, everyone has to work together. Waymo and Cruise autonomous vehicles are good examples in Phoenix and San Francisco, where the cars are learning to drive in public.
It’s not a utopian scenario where all the cars are in sync and can communicate. No, the Cruise vehicle has to figure out what to do about the person double-parked in front of the Whole Foods while also paying attention as someone else makes a quick dash for a nearby parking spot. Waymo cars need to understand that at the mall garage, driving super slowly and cautiously is going to infuriate drivers used to zooming through.
Autonomous vehicles use out-of-reach technology
Jacobs works with the underlying tech used to power self-driving vehicles. While it’s not ready for prime time, “most of it is here, all within our grasp,” Jacobs said
. By 2030, he says we’ll continue to see incremental improvements in cars anyone can buy. That means features like automatic emergency steering and braking that use self-driving tech will become as normal as cruise control.
Demler agrees; lower levels of autonomy, usually Level 2, are becoming more common in everyday cars.
Audi and Cadillac have traffic assist features, while Nissan and Tesla both introduced semi-autonomous driving systems, ProPilot Assist and Autopilot. Other cars have parking assistance features. Demler calls these “autonomous modes” that gear us up for full autonomy.
To enable these features, the sensors, cameras, and other tech on cars are the same you’ll see on self-driving cars.
The laser-emitting LiDAR sensors on the Audi A8 show what’s around the car, just like on Waymo minivans.
Autonomous cars sacrifice safety for convenience
For making a vehicle safer, “autonomous makes sense,” Demler conceded.
With 8,110 fatal car crashes in non-autonomous vehicles in the first three months of this year based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, self-driving cars can practically eliminate countless distracted, bad, and dangerous driving-based incidents.
Human error will be much less a factor if humans aren’t behind the wheel.
In the same 2019 period, there were no deaths involving a car operating in full self-driving mode.
Last year there was one in Tempe, Arizona, after an Uber self-driving car hit a woman. That’s not to say there weren’t any fatalities because of new tech in cars, but the cars were using semi-autonomous systems, like Tesla’s Autopilot. Volume 90%
As Aurora CEO Chris Urmson assured everyone last week at the World Safety Summit, his company is all about flagging safety concerns instead of brushing anything aside.
Furthermore, he committed, “We won’t deploy our self-driving vehicles on public roads without human safety drivers until our technology is safer than a human driver.”
Even with all these preconceptions slowing acceptance of autonomy, self-driving vehicles are happening, or at least starting to test on public roads in more places.
As we’re exposed to the new type of driving, we’ll start to see what it’s really like. Spoiler, it’s a lot more boring than you’d expect.
One woman who lives near Waymo testing has this to share: “These cars are sloooooowwww and overly cautious.”
As autonomous car tech executive Jacobs said, “Autonomy is going to come.” Even if it takes a while, you might as well get ready.