A Sober Second Look At Self-Driving Cars

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler
a sober second look at self driving cars

While TTAC‘s Mike Smitka published an essay urging readers to reign in their expectations regarding autonomous cars, a new report by MIT’s Technology Review pours even more cold water on the utopian fantasies of those waiting for the day when humans are no longer in control of the automobile.

While the full text is available at MIT, the American Enterprise Institute summarized the obstacles faced by autonomous cars in a series of handy bullet points

  • The self-driving car can’t drive itself in 99% of the country.
  • It knows almost nothing about parking, and can’t be taken out in snow or heavy rain.
  • If a new stoplight appeared overnight, the car wouldn’t know to obey it.
  • Google’s cars can detect and respond to stop signs that aren’t on its map, but at an unmapped intersection stop sign the car wouldn’t know what to do after it had stopped, and would probably remain stationary until a human driver intervened.
  • The car hasn’t yet tackled big, open parking lots or multilevel garages.
  • The car’s video cameras detect the color of a traffic light, and they’re still working to prevent them from being blinded when the sun is directly behind a light.
  • Pedestrians are detected just as moving, column-shaped blurs of pixels—meaning that the car wouldn’t be able to spot a police officer at the side of the road frantically waving for traffic to stop.
  • The car’s sensors can’t tell if a road obstacle is a rock or a crumpled piece of paper, so the car will try to drive around either. The car also can’t detect potholes or spot an uncovered manhole if it isn’t coned off.

Given all of the breathless hype regarding the technology, and Google’s introduction of their own prototype, sans pedals and steering wheel, it helps to have a contrarian viewpoint to dampen some of the exuberant enthusiasm professed by many who are better versed in the tech side of things, without understanding the unique subtleties of the auto world.

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  • Redav Redav on Aug 30, 2014

    These are hardly show-stoppers. They are merely a few more items to include in the final solution. The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed. It's silly to think autonomous cars will suddenly appear everywhere at once. They will appear on the Google campus & other controlled locations, then expand. We already have autonomous cars--self parking, radar cruise, lane-keep, auto braking, etc. these features will simply continue to get more inclusive, and human involvement will continue to decrease. As cars get smarter, we will build smarter infrastructure: V-to-V, V-to-I. Car can't 'see' a new stop sign? Well that new stop sign will be smart so that the car will automatically work with it--same with lights and parking lots/garages. It will be a transition, but it will happen.

  • Toxicroach Toxicroach on Aug 31, 2014

    Pretty much all of that is fixable with software and infrastructure improvements. Bitching that it can't park? I mean come on. We aren't even looking at the model t here, we're looking at a prototype of the prototype. It's early days yet, but I'm quite sure that a computer can and will be a much safer driver than the average driver. The computer never gets distracted, drunk, sleepy, or old. Automated cars would save tens of thousands of lives every year in the US. This is like saying personal computers will never be big because the Atari 7200 just isn't that much better than a typewriter.

    • See 3 previous
    • Toxicroach Toxicroach on Sep 03, 2014

      @mcs If the computer can't cope, a person would be utterly lost. Snow and heavy rain also solvable. If people can do it, a computer can figure it out. As far as aging goes, that can be resolved by a conservative maintenance and replacement regime. 50 years from now I'm very confident that people will look back at this era and shudder about how we let people drive three ton murder machines with only the most minimal training or competence.

  • Dukeisduke Why the hell doesn't Farley just resign? Why hasn't Bill Ford fired him? I lay all this at Farley's feet.
  • Dukeisduke I tried watching the livestream (I'm a MT+ subscriber), but after 15 minutes of jawing by the presenters, I got bored and turned it off. I may watch it this weekend, when I can fast forward through that stuff, to get to the reveal.
  • Dukeisduke Electric power steering, I assume. First-gen Chevy Cruzes can suffer from similar issues, usually traceable to a flaky battery negative cable, a $10 OEM part. Weird, huh?
  • Kwik_Shift Once 15 Minute Cities start to be rolled out, you won't be far enough away from home to worry about range anxiety.
  • Bobbysirhan I'd like to look at all of the numbers. The eager sheep don't seem too upset about the $1,800 delta over home charging, suggesting that the total cost is truly obscene. Even spending Biden bucks, I don't need $1,800 of them to buy enough gasoline to cover 15,000 miles a year. Aren't expensive EVs supposed to make up for their initial expense, planet raping resource requirements, and the child slaves in the cobalt mines by saving money on energy? Stupid is as stupid does.