Driverless cars revolution still no more than a virtual reality

Driverless cars revolution still no more than a virtual reality

The world had over 64 million kilometers of roads in 2013, according to the CIA. On these roads, we still see some ancient forms of transportation — horses in parts of the US, camels in Saudi Arabia, and elephants in India — but the vast majority of movement of people and goods comes from motorized vehicles. A man or a woman sits behind a steering wheel and directs a car, a motorcycle, a truck or a tractor along the many kilometers of road.

However, if you believe the futurists in Silicon Valley, Detroit, Tokyo and Riyadh, that may all be changing soon. Autonomous cars are the hot topic. Also known as self-driving cars or driverless cars, the invention promises a whole new world of transportation. With autonomous vehicles, we would be able to send emails, read or put on make-up when we commute to work in the morning. Products would ideally be cheaper because they would be shipped without truck drivers. And the biggest promise of all is that driving would be safer, because — at least according to the futurists — autonomous vehicles would eliminate the 95 percent of road accidents caused by human error (also known as bad driving).

 Autonomous cars are not quite there yet, and we do not know if they ever will be.

Ellen R. Wald

Maybe. Autonomous cars are not quite there yet, and we do not know if they ever will be. The Wall Street Journal earlier this month reported that big names in the autonomous car industry, such as Waymo and GM, use remote human drivers to take over from the computers when the cars face difficult scenarios. The article stated that: “Computers may be poised to take control of driving in the future, but humans will be backing them for some time yet.”

Moreover, the safety of autonomous cars is still in question. Tesla has a version of a semi-autonomous system on its cars, which it calls “autopilot.” Tesla touts this as “full self-driving hardware on all cars” and claims that this works “at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” Yet Tesla’s autopilot has been involved in a few notable crashes in the last few months. There have been prangs in China, Florida, Utah, and several in California. Just this month, a Tesla sedan that was operating on autopilot crashed into a parked police car in California. 

After this incident, a Tesla spokesperson responded that drivers are reminded to maintain control of the steering wheel when the car is operating on autopilot. She also said: “Tesla has always been clear that autopilot doesn’t make the car impervious to all accidents, and before a driver can use autopilot, they must accept a dialogue box which states that ‘autopilot is designed for use on highways that have a center divider and clear lane markings’.” However, on Tesla’s own website, a video shows a man in the driver’s seat with his hands on his lap while the car maneuvers through city streets. The video appears to be in conflict with both the spokesperson’s assertion about having hands on the wheel and her assertion about use only on highways.

While other autonomous vehicle programs are not offering cars or systems for sale at this point, other companies have also experienced mishaps since taking to the roads for tests. A Waymo-equipped minivan crashed in Arizona in May, though authorities said the system was not at fault. In March, Uber stopped testing its autonomous vehicle system when one of its cars struck and killed a woman. It had been testing its system in three North American cities.

Still, the progress continues. In May, Uber announced that it would restart tests on its autonomous vehicle system in a “few months.” Engineers in multiple companies are still working to improve the technology in the hope of creating a system that needs no human assistance. To facilitate the technological development, investment continues to pour into the engineering challenge, including $2.25 billion from Softbank’s Vision Fund. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is a major backer of the Vision Fund. 

Sometimes we are led to believe, and we happily accept, the notion that major technological breakthroughs are imminent, even without evidence. In the early 1990s, we were told that virtual reality was the next big thing, with movies such as “The Lawnmower Man” and “Disclosure” prominently featuring the imagined technology. That was even before the internet took off. And still today virtual reality is barely a marketable product with only marginal entertainment use. Autonomous vehicles seem similar.

The engineers know what they want autonomous vehicles to do, and they can imagine a world dominated by them. They can sell the concept to investors and excite consumers with visions and ideas. The futurists tell us they can predict the coming revolution in transportation. Yet the technology just isn’t there yet. Maybe it will be. Maybe.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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