Where is my robo-chauffeur?!

Ever since I first heard about Tesla and their autopilot feature in 2015, I have been patiently waiting for autonomous cars. Yet they always seem to be just out of reach and in testing phases. Now with numerous companies researching self-driving vehicles, including Audi, Volvo, Cadillac, Mercedes, and even technology companies like Apple, Uber, Amazon, Cisco and so many more, you would think that by 2021 we would have something. Even then-US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx declared in 2016 that we’d have fully autonomous cars everywhere by 2021. So why aren’t we all being driven to class campus every week in our new autonomous cars?

Total Recall’s “Johnny Cab”

The Vision of Fully Automated Cars

To understand more where I’m coming from, it might help if I give an explanation of the potential of an autonomous vehicle future. Optimistic urban planners started thinking what a city design could look like without the clutter of automotive detritus. There would be no more traffic signs or stoplights, no more cars parked by the side of the road. You would simply be dropped off at your destination and then the vehicles would leave. Cars would be able to chat with each other and the roads to control the flow of traffic. There would be no more car accidents, saving 1.3 million lives every single year. Obviously, this idealization of a fully autonomous vehicular world is not anywhere close and has many hurdles to cross if we are ever to reach there.

What’s Stopping Us?

Well to be honest, quite a lot. To start with, the technology is a lot tougher than expected. Not just the programming of the rules of the road, communicating with human drivers and pedestrians, who goes first at a four-way stop? It’s also getting sensors that work perfectly in all visibility conditions, including weather, flock of birds or some wind-blown leaves, it is a child’s ball that rolled into the road or just a trash bag? The cars need regulations as well, from the federal level all the way to the local level, all needing the support of the public as well. And I’m sure not even everyone reading this right now would feel completely comfortable being in an autonomous vehicle.

As simple and straightforward roads might look on a map for a program, what happens on them is normally quite the opposite. Humans are proficient driving cars, but not necessarily good at driving cars. Their imprecise and can be difficult to predict. So until every vehicle on the road is fully autonomous, which is seen to be very unlikely, every vehicle will have to be able to respond to every nuance of human drivers on a daily basis. The stuff that we can handle without even thinking about, is the stuff that autonomous vehicles are having a hard time catching up with.

Is There Any Hope?

There is! It might not be as fast as I would personally like it, but the technology behind autonomous vehicles is still making progress. Artificial intelligence systems are ever improving, and like I mentioned in my last blog post, can be taught to think more like humans. Allowing cars to be able to potentially better predict what other human drivers may do on the road.

Cloud systems and 5G networks are the potential next big step. Cloud computing allows engineers to offload data processing away from the vehicles themselves and onto more capable servers, leaving the autonomous drive systems to be in much better condition. The 5G network would enable a lot of features within these systems. The increased power of the 5G network will allow cities to better control traffic, cars will know every traffic signal in every intersection on the way to it’s destination, and vehicles will be able to communicate with each other for lane switches, traffic congestion, or weather.

The way that your GPS works now to detect traffic congestion and reroute you, would be the same way that the autonomous vehicles would but through a larger and more robust network. This can only be done when vehicles are communicating with each other and that is more viable now with the strength of 5G networks.

Even Covid-19 might be able to play a part in how the future of autonomous vehicles play out. The virus might permanently change the way that consumers feel about transportation. Some may want to stay away from public transportation or shared transportation, like Uber, for now on and would be more willing to have an autonomous vehicle pick them up and drop them off at their destination.

What are your thoughts on the future of self-driving cars and how do you imagine that automakers and other companies will react to the change in market with Covid?

10 comments

  1. I think you bring up an excellent point when you discuss the human driven cars as complications for the autonomous vehicles. I always wonder when I am on a large highway if some day there will be a separate lane just for autonomous vehicles, and if perhaps that can help temporarily get it off the ground in terms of market saturation. I think the other hard part is that a lot of autonomous vehicles are ideally trying to be fully electric, and like you mentioned, especially battery tech is just expensive and behind the pace of the rest of the automotive and transportation innovation.

  2. I found it interesting that in your vision of fully automated cars you think there will be no car accidents. I am not sure that will be the case. I would imagine less accidents but I don’t think they will be fully eliminated.

    Something that really interests me about fully automated cars is the ethical implications that come along with them. For example, if there was a situation where a child’s basketball rolls into the street and they run after it and another vehicle comes by, who should be saved? Who should the car avoid and who should it hit? Who has the responsibility to make those decisions? Who is held responsible in these situations, the driver, the automaker, the municipality?

    I wonder if this will delay the progress of automated vehicles.

  3. I’ve always said, my ideal car would be one that I don’t have to drive myself. I can’t wait for the day when autonomous vehicles are the norm and are priced to attract the general population. Although the technology associated with them has been tougher to apply than expected, I’d like to think that Moore’s Law will lead to even more advanced processing power sooner rather than later. I think it’s really interesting that two of the hottest automotive trends are electric cars and then those that are autonomous, it really shows which direction our world is moving in. Really appreciate how you went back in time at the beginning of your post to point out that despite the high expectations, we’re nowhere near where we expected to be five or six years ago. I think companies like Uber may have a tough time operating a fully autonomous fleet, but I think there would be a lot of value behind a service that operated autonomous rides from point A to point B only…say South Station to Logan maybe? It would be a great way to experiment with this technology on a more controlled and predictable route.

  4. I feel like we’ve had decades go by with some sort of promise of autonomous personal transport. I’m skeptical but oddly enough still hopeful that we could see it happen. Years ago, I became fascinated learning about the concept of PRT (personal rapid transport): basically a rail transit system that consists of individual pods that go from one destination to another, instead of a packed car stopping at every stop. There was a great book in the 90s about a French attempt (“Aramis, or The Love of Technology” by Bruno Latour) and this site details some US based initiatives:
    https://www.theverge.com/2016/2/24/11094524/prt-transit-history-self-driving-cars-alden-starrcar-tomorrowland-1960s

    I myself enjoy driving but I can see with my aging parents how autonomous vehicles could be a great option for their demographic.

  5. Like I mention in my tweet, excellent blog! I think 5G will have a significant impact in the upcoming years and the technology development. Still, you made a perfect point regarding all scenarios that a car will have to process successfully and ethically in a split second, and I am not sure the technology is there yet. I think car manufacturers will not take the lip until they are not sure their cars can make the right decision, and sometimes there is no right decision. What life is more important, the passage or the pedestrians? Would the vehicle protect a kid’s life over an adult’s? We could start with boats like ferry lines as a start and then transition to self-driving cars.

  6. Cool topic, Conor! Thanks for continuing to dive into this topical discussion. I’m curious about two things in particular: (1) AI learning process and (2) the 5G network. First, if AI systems “can be taught to think more like humans,” as you mention, but “Humans are proficient driving cars, but not necessarily good at driving cars,” why are we wanting to try AI to “think more like humans”? I think to Allie’s ethical point, sure, but what about actual driving capability. I wonder if this is like my Tweet on Zillow’s iBuying: automatic/using AI ~but only up to a point to which a human then needs to intervene as a ‘gut check.’ This also reminds me of the AI systems learning police officer behavior, which can have horrible racial discrimination consequences. Next, you mentioned that “The way that your GPS works now to detect traffic congestion and reroute you, would be the same way that the autonomous vehicles would but through a larger and more robust network.” As someone whose Waze frequently gets booted off the network, I find it concerning that cars would be run on that such sort of network. How can we assure that the car stays connected? What happens if it loses service? Much worse than a “can you hear me now?” ad.

  7. I read & tweeted about a Forbes article covering self-driving cars, and it is fascinating. They have different levels, the highest Level 4 & 5, is true self-driving vehicles, where there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving. A big question I have is if people will be accepting of self-driving cars by the time technology catches up.

  8. Great post!! To echo other comments, I love how you explored all of the facets/implications of autonomous vehicles. One of the critical components for this to become a reality is multi-access (or mobile) edge computing. Unfortunately I think you’re going to have to wait a little longer for your robo-chauffer as the infrastructure for this is still being built and – as you can imagine – is extremely capital intensive, involves intense coordination amongst government, telecom companies, tower companies, data center providers, cloud computing, hardware and software providers, etc etc. In order for the vehicles to be able to react “real time” and speak to the world around them, there can’t be any lapse in the latency or bandwidth, which requires micro data centers and 5G transmitters strategically positioned essentially everywhere. This also goes back to the question of rural connectivity, as most telcos are going to focus their efforts on urban areas, and satellites can’t provide the type of zero-latency connectivity that these types of machines will requires. To Karl’s point, maybe there will be separate lanes for autonomous vehicles as once we get out into more rural areas, we’ll probably still need to drive ourselves

  9. I think Volkwagen was looking the launch self driving taxis in 2025. They are testing it now. But I also think about how many job would be lost with this. There are many who make a living from Uber or Lyft or driving trucks. If this were to ever succeed, I hope there is another avenue created for jobs for people as well.

  10. I’m in the middle of writing a blog post regarding a more specific aspect of Tesla’s FSD capabilities, but this is all spot on! I bought my Tesla in 2020 and have been pretty consistently disappointed in the autonomous driving. Recently, Tesla announced monthly subscriptions for Full Self Drive so that drivers don’t have to pay $10k up front for the functionality. I tried this out before a trip to NY last month, and in my opinion is absolutely not worth it at this point (even the $200/month subscription model). Even disregarding the network and regulation issues you mentioned, the neural networks themselves need serious work. I could see how on wide open west coast streets the FSD would behave appropriately, but driving through old, narrow, winding roads with weird intersections and aggressive drivers in New England are variables that can be borderline impossible to code for. I don’t think level 4 or 5 is even close to ready for production.

    With all of that pessimism above though, I can’t deny how blown away I am with all of the technology packed into my Tesla. While autonomous driving isn’t optimal yet, the product holistically is a huge jump for the next generation of EVs. I know that a lot of cars offer the same tech as Tesla, but from my experience theirs is the most advanced and refined technology I have seen in a vehicle.

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