Self-Driving Cars: Semantics and Reality – 10/26/16

Depending on who you ask, self-driving cars are either already here or decades away. The reason for this is the existence of many different degrees of autonomy.

Today, a one-lane highway autonomy program in Japan shows an early degree. By removing many of the variables that would otherwise add too much complexity for today’s computers, the ProPILOT technology amounts to what many would call “self-driving”. Optimistic observers would then point to the operations of Uber in Pittsburgh as “urban driving”, a significant advancement signaling more to come before 2020.

Yet, this is different from the truly driverless car.

Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, Volvo Car Corp. and Lyft Inc. all say they will produce fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 or sooner. And while such claims are not technically false, they play fast and loose with the reality of the technology for the sake of hype.

To quote a few experts in the field:

Mary Cummings, a professor of engineering at Duke University, told WSJ, 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 of Google’s self-driving car project 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.”

“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.”

So there are some nuances that should be addressed.

Driverless vehicles have existed for a while, but not in a form most people would notice or care about.

If you want to take a taxi sans driver around Pittsburgh or some other open-minded major metropolitan area, then you have the chance to do so as part of one of the several test programs going on.

If you want your own car to carry you around the city, Ford, for example, has said it would release such a car by 2021… but only in the portion of major cities where the company can create and regularly update its 3-D street maps. Volvo, Lyft, GM, and Israel’s Mobileye NV will impose similar geographic limits on their self-driving vehicles.

If you want your car to drive itself just about anywhere you could drive it yourself, you’ll probably have to wait a couple decades or at least until 2030.

The reality is that, for now, “self-driving” cars will primarily have autonomous features like the ability to maintain a safe following distance, change lanes and stop in an emergency. Of course, someone just trying to get around the city wouldn’t care that their self-driving taxi can’t make a cross country road trip. As it comes closer to the driverless ideal, self-driving technology will save lives and change the world for the better regardless of the semantics behind what makes a car truly autonomous.

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