What’s holding back the self-driving car revolution?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

According to promises made a few years ago by automakers and the tech industry, we should all be sharing the road with millions of driverless cars by now. In 2016, a long list of companies asserted that within five years the once-unimaginable dream of fully self-driving cars would become a normal part of everyday life.

That hasn’t happened, of course. Major advances have been made, but even optimistic forecasts suggest it will be years — if not much longer — before regular consumers will be able to comfortably put their attention on anything other than the road while making their commute.

Right now, a number of car companies offer what are often called driver assistance features that can automatically handle a range of driving tasks like cruising, changing lanes and braking. This is what’s known in the industry as Level 2 automation. But each of these systems, even ones like Tesla’s that have been labeled “full self-driving,” requires a person behind the wheel who must maintain focus as if they were driving, so they can intervene if needed.

In a handful of cities, a few companies are testing driverless vehicles that can navigate without any human control. Waymo, an autonomous vehicle firm owned by Google’s parent company, offers a driverless taxi service in parts of Arizona. Those vehicles use substantially more hardware than the typical car with a driver-assist system and only travel on roads that have been previously mapped by human drivers.

The desire for fully self-driving cars isn’t just about convenience. Experts see autonomous vehicles as a means of reducing the enormous human cost associated with traditional driving —in particular, the 1.3 million estimated deaths worldwide per year caused by traffic accidents. The technology could also reduce congestion and speed up commutes, lowering emissions that contribute to climate change.

Why there’s debate

The simplest reason that the dream of autonomous cars hasn’t been realized is that driving is much more complex and difficult to replicate than automakers anticipated. Experts argue that, for all of the mistakes humans make on the road, our brains are equipped to handle unexpected situations — like an emergency vehicle parked in an unusual spot or a sudden change in road conditions — in a way that artificial intelligence struggles to mimic.

Others lay some blame on carmakers for rolling untested self-driving features onto the road and making lofty claims that prompt drivers to push beyond their vehicle’s capabilities. Misuse of self-driving features has caused deadly crashes, which in turn contributed to deep skepticism about the safety of self-driving cars among the public. Some proponents of self-driving technology, on the other hand, argue that authorities and critics are holding autonomous vehicles to an unfair safety standard relative to what’s expected of human drivers, which they believe limits how much companies are able to refine their products through real-world testing.

Another issue may be humans themselves. There’s some research to suggest that vehicle automation has stalled at Level 2 because our brains aren’t wired to maintain attention when not directly participating in an activity, which is what many driver-assist systems ask us to do. Finally, there are some experts who believe that the task of creating cars that can navigate every imaginable road scenario may simply be impossible.

What’s next

There is bound to be continued experimentation, possibly limited by future laws about where and under what circumstances this technology can be deployed. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in March that he expects “meaningful” federal regulations to be put in place in coming years.

Perspectives

Replicating human driving is much more complicated than automakers anticipated

“The community overestimated the potential of even the most advanced technology and underestimated the capabilities of even the least trained human driver. Driving, despite what many think, is a complex, dynamic effort at multitasking. Maintaining the speed and position of a vehicle no matter the changes in weather, traffic, road conditions, and the diverse mental, perceptual and motor capabilities of the human driver is not easy.” — Francesco Biondi, Conversation

Unachievable safety expectations are preventing real progress

“No matter how much they improve, theoretically, there will always be a situation that an AI won’t be able to detect and react to. Unless the industry and public agree to accept a flawed self-driving system — one capable of failure — autonomous vehicles on our streets will never become mainstream. Achieving perfection here can’t, and shouldn’t, be the goal.” — Jurica Dujmovic, MarketWatch

Humans aren’t capable of remaining focused when not actively controlling the car

“When you’re driving, relying on years of experience and muscle memory, sure, you can be thinking about all sorts of things, but, crucially, you are still very much engaged in the task of driving. It is not the same as sitting in the driver’s seat in a happy reverie, facing forward enough, with glassy, unfocused eyes in line with that monitoring camera. … Level 2 semi-automated systems are not compatible with how humans work.” — Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik

Companies must stop using real-world roads as testing grounds

“Self-driving vehicles hold tremendous promise to improve traffic safety. Humans are surprisingly bad at driving. … Putting it on the road before it is ready risks not only lives now but also swift public acceptance of the technology down the road when it is ready. If Tesla wants to run beta tests with human guinea pigs, it should do so on a closed track. We’d all feel safer.” — Greg Bensinger, New York Times

Strong regulations are needed for the self-driving vehicle industry to flourish

“Highly automated vehicles should reduce traffic fatalities substantially, just as automated flight control systems have made commercial aviation extremely safe. But we are unlikely to see significant improvements in autonomous vehicle safety without regulation and oversight. Appropriate regulation channels innovation; it does not stifle it.” — Multiple authors, The Hill

Automakers still haven’t made a compelling case for why we need self-driving cars

“It’s understandable that companies want to maximize shareholder return; that’s their role in a market economy. But automakers are still struggling to explain why, exactly, we should be excited about this technology, rather than alarmed by it. We shouldn’t let them off the hook unless we have a convincing answer.” — David Zipper, Washington Post

We should focus on the extraordinary progress that has already been made

“We should all stop thinking in terms of something magical will happen and all of a sudden cars will become self-driving. Rather, the shift will happen feature by feature, after many tests and improvements. That last change will be so incremental you won’t be able to realize it happened over the last five to 10 years.” — Raj Rajkumar, autonomous vehicle researcher, to Vox

Bursting the self-driving bubble means we can focus on making realistic advances

“Although some observers may perceive that ‘the bloom is off the rose’ for automated driving in the current posthype environment, the current situation actually marks a sign of progress. More realistic views of the opportunities and challenges for automated driving will motivate better-focused investments of resources and alignment of public perceptions with reality.” — Steven E. Shladover, Scientific American

Our roads aren’t built to accommodate autonomous vehicles

“The biggest challenge to self-driving cars is the biggest challenge to most major social changes: infrastructure. We want to integrate cool new things, but new things rely on old things. Fixing streets and signs and sidewalks paves the way to a particular vision of a cleaner, more accessible future.” — Meg Leta Jones, emerging technologies researcher, to Politico

Fully automated cars may be a fantasy

“Yes, the self-driving car is coming. … But the day may never come when a self-driving car will be able to take you most places a real driver can, in every kind of weather.” — Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., Wall Street Journal

A truly better future would be one without cars at all

“When the Surgeon General’s report came out in 1964, the discussion the tobacco companies wanted to have was, ‘How do we make cigarettes safe?’ That was getting the problem wrong. The real problem was, ‘How we can free ourselves from cigarettes?’ We are now in the exact same situation with automobiles. … ‘How do we make car dependency work?’ The real question is, ‘How can we free ourselves from car dependency?’” — Peter Norton, technology researcher, to Bloomberg

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Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images