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Why Don’t We Have Self-Driving Cars Yet?

For the past decade, self-driving cars have captured a lot of the industry's imagination and research dollars. That line of thinking is great for headlines and driving traffic to websites, but it’s quite far from the reality of autonomous vehicles. This topic raises a bunch of questions, the biggest of which is, “why don’t we have self-driving cars yet?”

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As it turns out, making a vehicle that can operate itself, outside, in the real world, without killing its occupants and everything around it, is hard. That difficulty is compounded by layers of legal, financial, and even psychological challenges. All of those things add up to a scenario where pure self-driving cars are years, if not decades, away.  Bryan Reimer, an MIT research scientist and the Associate Director of the New England University Transportation Center, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shares some of his thoughts on why we’re unlikely to see self-driving cars anytime soon. 

 

Business Need 

No surprises here: Businesses exist to make money, and in most cases, won’t keep doing things that don’t yield financial results. Highly automated technology, says Reimer, needs to be robust, tested, calibrated, and validated. That’s all before it’s packaged and sold to anyone, and our litigious society makes it hard to release such innovations into the wild. 

The costs associated with developing and marketing self-driving anything are massive, so the return on investment has to become very real, very fast for companies to remain interested. 

 

Technology 

As you read this, no one has developed a highly robust Level 4 autonomous driving system that is ready for commercial deployment at anywhere near the scale required to generate revenues that offset the costs of development. We’re far enough away from an autonomous future that Reimer believes there’s nothing, even on the horizon, that can be efficiently implemented. 

We see plenty of upstarts putting out autonomous “pods” or mass-transit systems, all of which operate in a geofenced (controlled) area, but none of them even slightly resemble the self-driving cars that we all thought we’d have in 2020. 

 

Legislation 

Governments around the world struggle to agree on what time of day it is, much less complex and wide-reaching policy decisions, so it’s not surprising that autonomous vehicles remain a legislative mystery. Reimer says that highly deployed automated vehicles can increase traffic problems as they circulate through urban areas looking for their next “fare,” but congestion is just one issue that legislators will have to face. 

Assuming we reach a point where things like school buses are automated, who will monitor the pickup and drop-off of our children, to regulate the chain of custody? Who will be responsible in the event of an accident? Further, an autonomous vehicle operating in one province will need to face the same set of laws when it crosses into another province, which has different traffic laws in many cases. Driving between countries, as many Canadians and Americans do on a regular, if not daily basis, adds another level of legal uncertainty. 

 

Human Trust 

One of the biggest challenges for many people is giving up control, even more so when giving up that control means handing over the keys. A quick look at the drunk driving statistics will tell you that people are obsessed with getting home behind the wheel of their vehicle at almost any cost. Why, then, would anyone of those people get into a car that not only takes away control but does so without another human in charge? 

As unlikely as it sounds, Reimer says that humans are pretty good when it comes to driving. It turns out that we’re well adapted to the multi-faceted challenges of driving and tend to be nearly as good as computers—even better in some situations. 

 

Infrastructure 

Our road infrastructure was built with people in mind. Adapting a driverless vehicle to those standards takes time, and we just aren’t equipped for a massive overhaul of the system. Reimer notes that it’s challenging to find funding to fix road problems, much less spend on upgrades for autonomous vehicles. 

 

Human Knowledge 

Even if we can reach a point where people fully trust their vehicles to take them safely from point A to point B, there is still a massive learning curve to overcome. People resist continuing driver’s education and balk when asked to understand new traffic laws, so, understandably, experts would be nervous about the prospect of turning people loose in vehicles that drive themselves. 

Reimer believes that advertising should be used to educate the public about how current vehicles work instead of blindly promoting the idea of self-driving cars. 

 

Marketing and Messaging 

If you’re reading this article and are thinking, “we already have self-driving cars,” you probably see where this is heading. Messaging and marketing around autonomous vehicles is a big part of the problem that the technology faces. Tesla’s Autopilot isn’t all that “auto,” enhancing driver safety and convenience instead of becoming the driver, and Cadillac’s Super Cruise falls into the same vein. Watching a recent YouTube clip or news report, you’d be forgiven for thinking that those technologies allow the driver to relax behind the wheel, as popular opinion seems to be that we’re on the cusp of a fully autonomous future. 

As far as we’ve come with autonomy in our vehicles, we still have light years left to travel before we’re answering emails from the driver’s seat on our morning commutes. Automation can do a lot of things, but it probably won’t be the holy grail for human safety and productivity, even for something like a ridesharing scenario. Concentrating on using automation as an assistance mechanism instead of a futuristic productivity tool will help avoid disappointment and will focus on consumers’ expectations in the right areas. 

 

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