For Now, Driverless Cars Getting the Yellow Light

Enthusiasm for the driverless car, once deemed the next great technological advance, has appeared to cool during the last couple of years, writes The Wall Street Journal’s Tim Higgins.

That’s not to say companies have given up on the idea of self-driving cars, however. It’s just that they’ve become “cautiously optimistic” after an Uber Technologies test driverless car was involved in a fatal accident last year, as well as Tesla Inc.’s driver-assistance system being involved in crashes.

At this year’s CES show and Detroit Auto Show, talk about robot-vehicle safety and lowered expectations replaced previous years’ chatter about how 100% driverless cars would crowd city roads, according to The Wall Street Journal. It appears autonomous vehicles’ immediate future is not as bright as it once was as the current landscape mostly features cars that travel in enclosed, well-practiced routes often having two safety operators inside.

According to Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute, which is also developing autonomous technology, the Uber crash flashed a major warning sign to the industry.

“That caused everyone to understand that there’s not only a long way to go technologically, but from a social point of view there’s liability and brand risk,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

Self-driving vehicle developers are having a tough time with numerous everyday driving scenarios like making unprotected left-hand turns and determining if an idling car is double-parked. For now, developers are handling the robots’ confusion with these issues by having the car slow down or stop. Unfortunately, this solution has only caused more confusion and frustration for fellow drivers who will just illegally pass the self-driving vehicle.

It could take decades for driverless cars to truly replicate or replace human drivers on the road, according to Pratt. In the meantime, he believes low-speed robot shuttles and taxis will initially be how the tech is deployed.

There’s a good chance Pratt’s forecast will be accurate as the goals some driverless car developers made have yet to come to fruition. For example, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said in 2016 his company would demonstrate a vehicle driving in full autonomous mode from Los Angeles to New York by the end of the following year. That did not happen. Musk told analysts earlier this year Tesla could have done the trip with a pre-planned route, but wanted to hold off until the car could be requested from any location.

Meanwhile, Waymo CEO John Krafcik promised about a year ago that in months, the company would let the general public ride in driverless vehicles without anyone operating the steering wheel. In a November 2017 speech, Krafcik went as far to say, “It’s not happening in 2020; it’s happening today. Fully self-driving cars are here.”

When Waymo launched the commercial service in suburban Phoenix last month however, safety operators were still in the car. Krafcik said during the event that the company had driven miles without anyone in the driver’s seat, but did not have an exact timeframe when asked when the vehicles would no longer need safety operators.

“We haven’t had any situations or incidents without any drivers in the front row,” he said. “We’re just proceeding as we should—very cautiously with safety as the primary focal point.”

Collision concerns are a major reason why fully autonomous vehicles have yet to take off, but there’s also a technological standpoint to consider, too. For self-driving cars to completely operate on their own, a few things will need to be put in place. Road sensors will have to be a constant presence to ensure 100% self-driving cars are safe. Secondly, a robust wireless network like 5G will have to be deployed for these sensors and vehicles to operate at their maximum potential. Until this happens, Pratt’s prediction of it taking decades for autonomous vehicles to replace human drivers appears to be a safe bet.

“What was underappreciated by the industry is how long and how difficult it would be to industrialize the technology,” said Karl Iagnemma, president of automotive supplier Aptiv’s autonomous mobility, when showing why deploying self-driving cars is so complicated during the CES show. “Industry-wide that recognition has dawned.”

 

Another topic to consider- Insurance. Are we really ready to figure out who the lawyers will chase when an autonomous vehicle has a crash?

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