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Self-Driving Hype Doesn’t Reflect Reality

To judge by recent claims, “fully autonomous” self-driving technology is just around the corner. Uber Technologies Inc. is offering Pittsburgh residents rides in autonomous Ford Fusions. Ford Motor Co.,  BMW AG, Volvo Car Corp. and Lyft Inc. say they will produce fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 or sooner. Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk,  rarely topped in hyperbole, says the technology will be here within 24 months.

To many industry insiders, these claims are largely hype. They’re not false, but they abuse the terms “autonomous vehicle” and “self-driving,” which evoke images of hopping into a car, entering a destination and disappearing into sleep, food or our phones.

That is not what we’re going to get by 2021. It won’t happen for a long time, maybe decades.

Companies are adopting ‘autonomous’ technology. Shown, an Uber self-driving car in Pittsburgh. PHOTO: ANGELO MERENDINO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

“These statements are aspirations, they’re not really reality,” says Raj Rajkumar, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborates with General Motors Co.  “The technology just isn’t there.…There’s still a long way to go before we can take the driver away from the driver’s seat.”

Dr. Rajkumar is hardly alone in his skepticism. Mary Cummings, a professor of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering at Duke University, says a fully autonomous car “operates by itself under all conditions, period.” She adds, “We’re a good 15 to 20 years out from that.”

Chris Urmson knows the field as well as anyone, having led the self-driving car project at Google parent Alphabet Inc. for more than seven years before departing in August. Last March, he told the SXSW conference that self-driving technology will arrive for some of us in a few years, and for the rest of us in 30. That is, it could arrive soon for very specific uses; but as a full-bore replacement for humans, it will take a long time.

In other words, it is all about how you define “autonomous” and “self-driving.”

“I always remind people we’ve had driverless vehicles carrying people between terminals at an airport for 40 years,” says Steven Shladover, manager of the Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology program at the University of California, Berkeley. “But they’re operating in a very well protected right of way.”

Ford, for example, has said it would release a self-driving car by 2021. Dig into the statements and press for details, and a Ford spokesman says that car will only be self-driving in the portion of major cities where the company can create and regularly update extremely detailed 3-D street maps. Ford declines to say how big those areas will be.

Lyft is collaborating with GM and says it will introduce fully self-driving cars by 2021. But co-founder John Zimmer says the vehicles will be limited to a specific geographic area and a top speed of 25 miles an hour.

Representatives of Volvo and Israel’s Mobileye NV, which makes self-driving technology and is collaborating with Intel and BMW, will impose similar limits on their coming self-driving vehicles. Volvo’s cars might refuse to go into self-driving mode on roads that are insufficiently mapped, says Erik Coelingh, the technical lead on Volvo’s self-driving car efforts. The cars will pull over to the side of the road, or come to a stop, if inclement weather impedes the vehicle’s perceptual abilities, Mr. Coelingh says.

That is a scary thought—and one reason why early “fully autonomous” cars will require monitoring by humans.

It is worth noting that Google, the company with the most experience with self-driving technology, is among the most cautious. Google has yet to announce a release date for its self-driving vehicles, though it plans to soon begin tests in Fiat Chrysler minivans.

In the near term, “self-driving” cars will resemble Teslas, with their “traffic-aware cruise control” that can maintain a safe following distance, change lanes and stop in an emergency. Then we’re likely to see vehicles that don’t require drivers but can only operate on a fixed, well-mapped route in cities with fair weather, such as from the airport to the Las Vegas Strip.

But the consensus of those I interviewed is that it will be many years before we get cars that can truly go anywhere.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Amnon Shashua, co-founder and chief technology officer of Mobileye, says that the problem of sensing and controlling in self-driving cars is mostly solved. Perfecting these systems won’t require scientific breakthroughs, he says—just many small improvements in the software, gleaned from watching humans drive in the real world.

“The ingredients exist; now it is a matter of engineering,” Mr. Shashua says.

Even the skeptics agree that self-driving technology is coming, will save lives and eventually become part of nearly all vehicles. But don’t expect it by 2021.

Source: Wall Street Journel