A Sober Second Look At Self-Driving Cars

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

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.

Derek Kreindler
Derek Kreindler

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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.

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  • Varezhka And why exactly was it that Tesla decided not to coat their stainless steel bodies, again? My old steel capped Volant skis still looks clean without a rust in sight thanks to that metal vapor coating. It's not exactly a new technology.
  • GIJOOOE “Sounds” about as exciting as driving a golf cart, fake gear shifts or not. I truly hope that Dodge and the other big American car makers pull their heads out of the electric clouds and continue to offer performance cars with big horsepower internal combustion engines that require some form of multi gear transmissions and high octane fuel, even if they have to make them in relatively small quantities and market them specifically to gearheads like me. I will resist the ev future for as long as I have breath in my lungs and an excellent credit score/big bank account. People like me, who have loved fast cars for as long as I can remember, need a car that has an engine that sounds properly pissed off when I hit the gas pedal and accelerate through the gears.
  • Kcflyer libs have been subsidizing college for decades. The predictable result is soaring cost of college and dramatic increases in useless degrees. Their solution? More subsidies of course. EV policy will follow the same failed logic. Because it's not like it's their money. Not saying the republicans are any better, they talk a good game but spend like drunken sailors to buy votes just like the libs. The sole function of the U.S. government is to take money from people who earn it and give it away to people who didn't.
  • CecilSaxon Sounds about as smart as VW's "SoundAktor"