U.S. Transportation Secretary Realizes Autonomous Cars Aren’t Ready

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Despite the automotive industry having had the concept on its mind since the 1950s, autonomous vehicles still have yet to manifest in a manner that would allow them to be safely fielded in large numbers. With manufacturers previously vowing to have self-driving cars available to customers by 2020, consumers are starting to write the technology off as an industrial chimera. It’s also starting to look like the government is having doubts, especially now that U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg seems to be calling the technology to task.

“It feels like the widespread use of autonomous driving is seven years away, and it’s been seven years away for 10 years,” Buttigieg was quoted as saying by Jalopnik. “So the question is, will it be seven years away 10 years from now, or will we actually be getting somewhere?”

While your author has frequently complained about the Department of Transportation’s position in regard to widespread electrification, it’s nice to see someone within the government finally taking a realistic stance on self-driving vehicles. Though, with the automotive sector having promised the tech for years and seeing limited success, it’d be surprising to see anyone retaining a gung-ho attitude in 2022. 

To be fair, the technology has made some meaningful headway since 2015. Numerous automakers have released advanced driving suites that can mimic certain aspects of autonomous driving. But these systems are often befuddled by inclement weather conditions.

Computers can be similarly confused by an unfamiliar environment or obstacle – things a human driver could instantly adapt to. This is why you can see companies like Waymo and Cruise building fleets of driverless cars that seem to have achieved success only to become the subject of criticism when they eventually go haywire. There are also legal hurdles and a mark of excellence that requires autonomous tech to perform perfectly to be of any real value to the industry. 

It’s an incredibly high bar and one that’s starting to look totally out of reach – which is to say nothing about unanswered legal questions and the monumental cost automakers have incurred thus far just to develop this stuff.

However, this hasn’t prevented automakers from taking extra steps to implement safety measures in anticipation of self-driving vehicles. Hell, the entire premise of “mobility” revolved around building connected cars so that AVs could better interact with each other. By 2020, we were even seeing mainstream automakers adding driver-monitoring cameras to select vehicles that used advanced versions of cruise control – operating under the claim that such technologies will be helpful in preventing distracted driving while also helping put the legal onus back onto drivers. Will these invasive inclusions be scrapped now that it looks like self-driving cars are nowhere near ready to be used by the public? 

Of course not. Automakers believe there’s a fortune to be made via in-car subscriptions and customer data harvesting. One could even make the argument that the industry claiming various systems would serve as an essential safety net for the eventuality of self-driving cars served as a Trojan Horse for a lot of the services automakers sees as more profitable. Whether or not that was the intent is debatable. But that’s still more-or-less the outcome. 

Congress went along with the premise for years, often allowing companies to field autonomous test mules based on little more than an empty promise that they were following some kind of safety protocol. The Department of Transportation has been largely complicit in this and even embraced the promise of self-driving vehicles as a way to eliminate fatal car accidents altogether. Meanwhile, practically nobody seemed to notice that every modern vehicle was being outfitted with large, distracting screens and advanced driving aids that appear to be making everyone a worse driver

Granted, this has changed in recent years. We’ve started to see the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) focus on car companies other than Tesla and groups like the American Automobile Association (AAA) have been testing just how fallible modern driving aids happen to be in the general sense. It’s taken nearly 10 years but word has gotten around. Sadly, some of the resulting actions feel like too little too late.

“There is a very serious danger right now in this kind of valley of death between where we started and where we’re headed, where these technologies do run the risk of making things worse,” Buttigieg continued. “Especially if people see ADAS, which is an automated driver assistance system, and treat it like a driver replacement system.”

“Just to be clear, I don’t care what they call these things, Autopilot or Self-Driving or whatever, there is no car that you can buy today from a dealer where you don’t have to be paying attention at all times when you’re driving.”

Though this all seems to exist counter to statements he made at roughly the same time. In an interview with Quartz discussing the alleged need to change people's psychology on all-electric vehicles, Buttigieg claimed something similar would need to be done to ensure autonomous widespread vehicle adoption could take place.

“Human drivers aren’t just problematic, they are murderous. Forty thousand people a year die in a car crash. And we have been bathed in this level of carnage all our lives. And so we’re a bit like people who grow up in a place that’s experiencing a war, in terms of how normal we think that is," he said. "[Technology] is not always the answer to everything. But frankly, it would be hard to do worse than human drivers when it comes to what we could get to theoretically with the right kind of safe autonomous driving."

“I think there is a sort of promised land on the other side. But psychology is going to be tough,” added Buttigieg. "[If] robots killed 10,000 people a year on the roads, there would be an uproar. But that would represent a 75 [percent] reduction in roadway deaths compared to where we are now. So we’ve got to make sure the reality and the perception of it is moving in the right direction.”

[Image: lev radin/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 103 comments
  • Zerofoo Zerofoo on Nov 04, 2022

    We don't know how the human brain works (mostly), yet we are trying to mimic that complex system in computer hardware that is millions of times less capable.

    Anyone that knows anything about neural nets knows this whole exercise was doomed from the start.

    I was on a team that built a very simple neural net in college. We successfully trained it to recognize the color blue. That took us an entire semester to get done and it mostly worked.

    30 years later we are convinced we can train large scale matrices to perform complex decisions. Here's the truth - these systems are decent at pattern recognition, but they absolutely stink at learning and making decisions based on that learning.

    Until we figure out how the human brain does this, we have no hope of emulating this in traditional computational systems.

  • Tassos Tassos on Dec 05, 2022

    What a genius! Buttigieg realized that Autonomous cars are not ready? What powers of preception and prescience.

    I expect in your next article to see that he made another profound discovery, that the earth is round.

  • Probert A few mega packs would probably have served as decent backup.
  • Lou_BC Lead sleds. Now-a-days GM would just use Bondo.
  • Jrhurren This is a great series. Thanks Corey
  • Tane94 Not as stylish as the Soul which it is replacing but a practical shape and bonus points for EV only.
  • Ronin What is the magical white swan event in the foreseeable future that will suddenly reverse the trend?Success tends to follow success, and likewise failure. The perception, other than among true believers, is that e-cars are a lost cause. Neither government fiat, nor government bribery, nor even the promise of superior virtue among one's peers have been enough to push past the early adapter curve. Either the bust-out is right now for e-cars, or it doesn't happen. Marketing 101.Even subtle language-manipulation, such as deeming those possessing common sense as suffering from some sort of vague anxiety (eg, "range anxiety") has not been enough to induce people to care.Twenty years from now funny AI-generated comedians will make fun of the '20s, and their obsession with theose silly half-forgotten EVs. They will point out that, yes, EVs actually ran on electricity generated by such organic fuels as coal and natural gas after all, and then they will perform synthesized laughter at us.