Five years ago, the future looked bright, but with fully-autonomous vehicles still to materialise, even the faithful are starting to have doubts
8 November 2019

From 2020 you will become a permanent back-seat driver’ ran a typically breathless headline from 2015. The story, from The Observer, reflected the optimism that Silicon Valley geniuses were fast clearing the hurdles to self-driving.

That optimism has faded as both car and tech firms begin to acknowledge that training a computer to think faster and smarter than a human amid the myriad of driving situations we encounter daily is tough.

“Everybody talking about autonomous cars four years ago was saying they’d be here by now,” Nick Rogers, head of engineering at Jaguar Land Rover said. “I think we can get 80% of the way there very, very quickly, but when the car’s in charge, the only answer is zero accidents and that’s going to be a challenge for a bit longer.”

Ford put its hand up this year, too. “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” CEO Jim Hackett said. Argo AI, the self-driving tech firm tasked with making Ford’s vision a reality, dampened down expectations of Ford’s self-driving car promised for 2021. CEO Bryan Salesky wrote in a blog last month that the car will operate in only a specific area of a city, won’t be available for purchase and will have a governed top speed.

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That puts this Ford car at the lower end of what’s termed level four autonomy: you get to be that permanent back-seat driver, but in limited areas only. Even level three, where you can take your hands off the wheel but must be prepared to take control at a moment’s notice, hasn’t been given the regulatory green light in Europe as hoped, despite Audi offering the technology on its top-end models from 2017.

For car companies, it was a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out), caught as a result of excess exposure to Californian tech firms and spread around via artful presentations by consultants.

“They’ve been told day in and day out that they are ‘dinosaurs’, that they are going to be ‘disrupted’,” Max Warburton, analyst at Bernstein Research, wrote in an October report. “This repetitive refrain has worn down the decision makers at the top of these companies.”

Car makers are now ‘right-sizing’ expectations and seizing the conversation back from tech companies, who are learning the adage ‘cars are difficult’, according to Jeremy Carlson, senior analyst covering autonomous tech for IHS Markit. “There’s hasn’t been a direct safety impact on what they’ve been doing in the past,” Carlson said.

The high cost, uncertain payback and the need for cast-iron certainty that it all works have pushed tech firms and car makers into collaborations. For example, earlier this year, Volkswagen joined Ford to take a joint majority stake in Argo AI; BMW and Daimler have teamed up on autonomous development; and a raft of companies, including Toyota, General Motors, Bosch and Arm, formed a consortium to develop an autonomous computing platform.

Carlson said: “We’re talking about complex systems. You can’t just provide one piece to the next person in the supply chain and ask them to add something on top of it.”

Another impediment to progress is the uncertainty whether all the miles of testing have made the computers smart enough to take on the ultimate responsibility. “Companies we talk to really don’t know where they are, don’t know when they’re done,” said Ziv Binyamini, CEO and co-founder of Foretellix, an Israeli company that claims it has developed a way of validating testing.

The promises might have been toned down, but the technology is still advancing. Earlier this month, Waymo, the Google-owned firm generally agreed to be furthest ahead with the technology, wrote to customers of its self-driving ride-hailing trial in Phoenix, Arizona, to say that its cars (including Jaguar I-Paces) will soon arrive without their human safety driver.

China, meanwhile, is working around self-driving issues by modifying its roads, denoting some to be ‘AV-only’ – for example, in Beijing’s ‘E-town’. Off public roads, autonomous robots are happily delivering parcels in Milton Keynes and guiding passengers to gates in Frankfurt airport. Robotaxis may be 10-20 years away instead of next February (unless you live in Phoenix), but lower-cost, higher-margin transport is still the prize.

“The opportunity ahead is bigger than any of us can imagine,” said Salesky. “Its future will arrive gradually, and safely, if we do it right.”

Nick Gibbs

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Comments
30

8 November 2019

“It takes 90% of the time to get 90% of the way, and 90% of the time to get the last 10%.”

 

In other words, people often overestimate how close they are to the finish. Autonomous cars are on the way, just not as quickly as some hoped. Especially as they need to be 100% before deployed.

8 November 2019

 There are too many variables to sort out before fully autonomous transport becomes the norm, there's the factor of millions of non autonomous cars, will there be dedicated roads, lanes on motorways, a reliable charging infrastructure, these are just a few concerns, how long?, I don't know, but it will happen.

8 November 2019

There are two competing factors  here. The tech allowing  cars to self drive is here, the question stands over the safety of that tech. Silicon valley is used to 'disrupting' things usually buy side stepping  regulation if it exists and rushing product to market that may not always work. That can't happen with cars which is why silicon  valley thinks cars are hard, if it goes wrong the authorities  start to ask awkward questions and they like that as much as the car industry  did when challenged in the 1960s and 70s.

That doesn't  mean that self driving  cars won't come - crossing the Atlantic, flight and the sound barrier were all thought to be impossible but were over come. I do now doubt  that the average family  car will self drive in the foreseeable future but I think hgvs and taxis will be autonomous by 2030.

8 November 2019
SamVimes1972 wrote:

There are two competing factors  here. The tech allowing  cars to self drive is here, the question stands over the safety of that tech. Silicon valley is used to 'disrupting' things usually buy side stepping  regulation if it exists and rushing product to market that may not always work. That can't happen with cars which is why silicon  valley thinks cars are hard, if it goes wrong the authorities  start to ask awkward questions and they like that as much as the car industry  did when challenged in the 1960s and 70s.

That doesn't  mean that self driving  cars won't come - crossing the Atlantic, flight and the sound barrier were all thought to be impossible but were over come. I do now doubt  that the average family  car will self drive in the foreseeable future but I think hgvs and taxis will be autonomous by 2030.

 

The tech allowing cars to drive themselves autonomously and safely on-road is not here. It's more than 10 years away.

Tech that allows cars to drive themselves is here, and has been for 30+ years. VW presented solutions at DARPA demonstrations in the US decades ago.

The issue is vehicles driving themselves SAFELY on mixed-user roads.

As the article says, that problem is far harder to solve - you can't program for it, the vehicle has to think for itself. And the level of computing required isn't even there yet - let alone with a program on said computer efficient enough to do the job.

8 November 2019
CarNut170 wrote:
SamVimes1972 wrote:

There are two competing factors  here. The tech allowing  cars to self drive is here, the question stands over the safety of that tech. Silicon valley is used to 'disrupting' things usually buy side stepping  regulation if it exists and rushing product to market that may not always work. That can't happen with cars which is why silicon  valley thinks cars are hard, if it goes wrong the authorities  start to ask awkward questions and they like that as much as the car industry  did when challenged in the 1960s and 70s.

That doesn't  mean that self driving  cars won't come - crossing the Atlantic, flight and the sound barrier were all thought to be impossible but were over come. I do now doubt  that the average family  car will self drive in the foreseeable future but I think hgvs and taxis will be autonomous by 2030.

 

The tech allowing cars to drive themselves autonomously and safely on-road is not here. It's more than 10 years away.

Tech that allows cars to drive themselves is here, and has been for 30+ years. VW presented solutions at DARPA demonstrations in the US decades ago.

The issue is vehicles driving themselves SAFELY on mixed-user roads.

As the article says, that problem is far harder to solve - you can't program for it, the vehicle has to think for itself. And the level of computing required isn't even there yet - let alone with a program on said computer efficient enough to do the job.

 

Not sure why you had to reply saying the same thing I did.

8 November 2019

Why, the tech even in prototype form isn't here yet other than in an unreliable expensive form, secondary, how much extra would a true self driving car cost, £10,000 onto of base price of a Focus, customers don't like paying £100 for a wireless charger.

Come back to this story when a car is coming off the production line that can drive from Heathrow to the Elephant and castle in London then park itself.  Until then let failures like Google car provide humorous filler stories.

8 November 2019
xxxx wrote:

Why, the tech even in prototype form isn't here yet other than in an unreliable expensive form, secondary, how much extra would a true self driving car cost, £10,000 onto of base price of a Focus, customers don't like paying £100 for a wireless charger.

Come back to this story when a car is coming off the production line that can drive from Heathrow to the Elephant and castle in London then park itself.  Until then let failures like Google car provide humorous filler stories.

 

The car that can do that is pretty  much here but the problem  is, as I pointed out above the ability to do it safely every single time. 

8 November 2019

Tesla is way ahead of the game to self driving but as usual doesnt even get a mention in this rag.

Musk has said it is coming even if they have to iron out glitches, but thats normal for any leading edge technology.

8 November 2019
lambo58 wrote:

Tesla is way ahead of the game to self driving but as usual doesnt even get a mention in this rag.

Musk has said it is coming even if they have to iron out glitches, but thats normal for any leading edge technology.

 

Tesla are behind ArgoAI and Waymo.

They got complacent, and have been too busy producing gimicks for their customers, who think they have level 4 autonomy but in fact have level 3.

Tesla are leading nothing, their sensors are insufficient to support level 4 autonomy - they need to make some MAJOR changes to catch up.

Elon needs to admit he's wrong first though - so they're obviously never going to catch up!

8 November 2019
CarNut170 wrote:
lambo58 wrote:

Tesla is way ahead of the game to self driving but as usual doesnt even get a mention in this rag.

Musk has said it is coming even if they have to iron out glitches, but thats normal for any leading edge technology.

Tesla are behind ArgoAI and Waymo.

Where can you buy a Waymo car and how much does one cost?

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