Autonomous car hype is way ahead of reality

Thursday, 8 February 2018

“We're so close, so close, yet so far away,” sang legendary rock duo Hall and Oates back in the 1990s on the subject of love. Driverless cars were science fiction then, but now despite the massive investment and hyperbole, AVs won’t be with us for a while yet.

The problem is that despite hugely impressive gains in autonomous technology, the last percentage points of progress towards 100% reliability are proving difficult to achieve. Other more prosaic hurdles loom too like regulation, insurance, legal liability, and the almost impossible moral and ethical decisions that need to be taken by the car’s artificial intelligence system in the event of a crash, whether to mow down the line of children, pensioners or self-sacrifice into the wall.

Could this trip up General Motors? The automaker has set 2019 as its target date to roll out an autonomous taxi fleet after recent trials in San Francisco of its Chevrolet Bolt Cruise autonomous technology. The first autonomous cars available to the public for general use are probably at least 15 years away, unless next week’s CES show in Las Vegas provides some unexpected dynamite.

A Chevrolet Bolt with AV Technology Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

Some think autonomous talk is pretty much hot air.

“Let’s face it: we’re talking about a technology that will never happen,” said Christian Wolmar in Spectator magazine. Wolmar is a British-based author and transport expert. “There may be some driverless cars going around Phoenix (Ariz.) in a very limited way but the owners of Waymo, which is part of Google, are very secretive about precisely what they’re doing,” Wolmar said in an interview.

GM is testing the latest technology on the Cruise Bolt in San Francisco.

“The hype is being driven by carmakers, desperate to lay claim to the future, and tech giants who have all this footloose capital that they don’t know what to do with. It’s as much of a fantasy as the jet-powered Backpacks that use to be in 1960s comics,” Wolmar said.

Auto manufacturers will beg to differ as they spend kerzillions perfecting computerised cars, and some experts like Bernstein Research analyst Robin Zhu do think autonomous vehicles (AVs) are getting very close.

“While tremendous uncertainties remain in AV technology, we believe a breakthrough could come sooner than expected,” said Hong Kong based Zhu.

“The U.S. will likely be where commercialisation takes off first – we’ve been impressed by the progress made by Waymo and GM Cruise. Longer term though we’d argue China could represent one of – if not the most promising market of all, in terms of AV proliferation. The country is large, and consists chiefly of dense cities where economics of ridesharing look most attractive,” Zhu said.

Hong Kong is of course part of China these days. Zhu sounded optimistic, but didn’t suggest an actual date for things to start.

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