Self-driving cars: Good bet or a money pit?


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Everyone from the Big Three automakers to insurance companies and chip designers is accelerating efforts to create self-driving cars – and accelerating the hype, too.

But while the auto industry is gobbling up technology companies in multi-billion-dollar deals to accelerate their progress toward autonomous vehicles and telling shareholders, investors and consumers that a driverless world is just around the corner, the Trends Research Institute maintains its prediction that the road will turn out to be longer and bumpier than most expect.

Our analysis of the driverless trend and the auto industry overall shows a pattern of failures, a sustained lack of inventiveness and propensity to over-promise and under-deliver.

A good example of hype outpacing reality is Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk. He’s been on a high-powered year-long campaign touting his company’s progress and commitment toward producing vehicles that drive themselves. But the engineers tasked with developing the hardware to do just that quietly rebuked those claims.

In fact, the Autopilot team under Musk, tasked with developing driverless technology, is increasingly indicating that its efforts are advancing slower than the company’s stated goals and deadlines. And, Autopilot’s director and more than a dozen engineers and team managers have resigned in just the last few months.

Apple is another example of how the hype has jumped ahead of the science and technology.

The company recently scaled back its ambitious plan to build self-driving cars and instead announced it would shift its efforts to focus on self-driving shuttle service vehicles that would transport Apple employees around its campus.

That announcement scuttled the earlier bold proclamation that it would develop its own Apple-branded self-driving vehicles and signaled a warning to future CEOs and the business media about the driverless auto industry and the claims they’ve been selling.

DRIVERLESS VEHICLE ADVANCES?

Still, there have been a number of developments worth noting that underscore where progress is being made and where it’s faltering.

Tesla has sped to the head of the convoy, literally and figuratively, by saying that it will introduce its electric long-haul truck this fall. The plan is to test the trucks on highways in California and Nevada.

The truck is the first component of Tesla’s plans for “road trains” – long lines of self-driving trucks that follow a lead vehicle (presumably also a truck) driven by a human. The driverless trucks will be able to follow the leader like ducklings follow Mother. The trucks’ human drivers would be able to sleep or rest on long, tedious interstate runs and take the wheel for skilled work, such as backing up to a loading dock. The idea is to eventually eliminate humans entirely.

The Telsa announcement is consistent with the Trends Research Institute’s 2016 forecast that while driverless vehicles for the general public are decades away, “a concentration on investment and research in autonomous vehicles in commercial trucking and public-transportation arenas will become more prominent and build momentum” because simpler, more direct and traffic-free routes are easier to navigate.

Yet, even this development will face limitations. The world’s highways and byways are too varied and complex to provide clear pathways void of unseen dangers and common occurrences for driverless vehicles to manage. They are becoming vastly overcrowded not only in the US but across the globe.

CRITICAL TEST

Tesla has asked Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles for permission to test a rudimentary version of its road-train idea on public roads. Other companies, including Uber and a partnership between Volvo and Peloton Technology, are chasing the same concept.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has partnered with its federal counterpart to test self-driving cars in express lanes on freeways outside of Washington, D.C. Tests will include not only bumper-to-bumper caravans at travel speeds but also other kinds of technologies that will help the cars obey road signs and stay in their lanes.

Meanwhile, some hopefuls are already setting self-driving cars loose on city streets. Waymo, Google’s spin-off company, has 600 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica vans in Phoenix and is offering free rides to folks going to the office, ballgame or dentist.

In one incarnation or the other, Google has been methodically gathering data from its self-driving prototypes since 2010 and is now partnered with ride service Lyft to keep gathering even more data.

The problem for Waymo, Uber and other tech-centric companies is that they have no means for making cars. And automakers have no means to develop the technology. That’s why so many are merging with or buying into high-tech companies they believe have the expertise and resources to advance driverless-vehicle technology.

Daimler AG, which makes Mercedes Benz, has partnered with auto-parts company Bosch to field self-driving taxis by 2021. (Passengers would summon the cabs through a smartphone app.) Ford also has targeted that year for its own version of autonomous cars. Early versions are expected to be able to operate only within electronically “fenced” areas – a college campus, for example – so bugs can be found and fixed before heading out into urban traffic.

The insurance industry also is finding its way in this new world. Farmers Insurance has designed a new policy for Tesloop, a ride-sharing service using Tesla cars in southern California. Farmers is using the venture to test and refine coverage designs for vehicles that embrace autonomous features.

But, as is often the case, technology generates an enthusiasm that accelerates past practicality.

An August 2017 study from the University of Washington found that adding a little graffiti to a stop sign confused autocars into thinking the sign was, instead, a 45 mph speed-limit sign. A scientist at the University of Michigan discovered that precisely tuned sounds caused the sensors on self-driving vehicles to misread inputs.

And that doesn’t take into account the creativity and skills of everyday hackers out for thrills and bragging rights.

There’s also the human factor. A March 2017 AAA study found that 54 percent of Americans are afraid of sharing the road with fully automated cars.

That number will significantly increase once driverless cars actually hit the roadways. And once driverless vehicles are involved in accidents, legal liabilities and costs will escalate rapidly, further slowing the evolution to a driverless future.   TJ  

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