Few technology transitions that are so potentially consequential and dangerous have been as over-hyped as driverless cars.
In June 2017, The New York Times wrote, “There are increasing signs that autonomous cars have arrived — and may be driving on our city streets sooner than we think.” Car companies from BMW to Ford are predicting “fully self-driving cars,” as early as 2021.
But Toyota believes truly driverless cars — autonomous vehicles with nobody behind the wheel — are a long way away, possibly decades.
Bloomberg reported Wednesday that “Toyota doesn’t necessarily buy the hype about self-driving vehicles quickly taking control of roads in the U.S. and beyond.” The article quotes John Leonard, VP for automated driving research at the Toyota Research Institute,” explaining “Taking me from Cambridge to Logan Airport with no driver in any Boston weather or traffic condition — that might not be in my lifetime.”
Many leading experts have told ThinkProgress they agree that getting safe driverless cars on U.S. roads is a much longer and more complicated task than Americans have been led to believe.
These experts include Michael Liebreich, the former chair of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF); Cordell Schachter, the chief technology officer for the New York City Department of Transportation; and Christopher Hart, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
In a 2017 interview, Liebreich told ThinkProgress he thought “real” self-driving cars were at least a decade away. This is because they need to be much safer than current cars but are, in fact, currently much less safe. As Liebreich explained in April 2017 at BNEF’s Future of Energy Global Summit, “when you use a method of transport which you don’t control — not a car but a train or a plane — you expect it to be … 50 times safer. That’s what society has decided it requires.”
A year later, he made the same point in a tweet: “Recent Uber & Tesla autonomous vehicle deaths show general use of real self-driving is a decade away. The tech still needs orders of magnitude improvement.”
Recent #Uber & #Tesla autonomous vehicle deaths show general use of real #selfdriving is a decade away. The tech still needs orders of magnitude improvement. And society will not accept Tesla's 3.7x safety improvement: buses, trains & planes are 50-100x safer. From a year ago: pic.twitter.com/OHLzbMnyVx
— Michael Liebreich (@MLiebreich) April 5, 2018
Hart, a pilot, aeronautical engineer and a lawyer, made a similar point to ThinkProgress. Based on the NTSB’s experience with airplanes, Hart is convinced the transition to fully autonomous cars will be similarly long and complicated.
“Despite several decades of automation in aviation, airliners will have human pilots for the foreseeable future,” said Hart. “Streets and highways are much more variable and unpredictable than airways, and predictions that the streets will be filled with large numbers of autonomous vehicles within a few years are ignoring not only the lessons of automation history, but also the numerous additional challenges that will be faced on the ground.
At a June 2016 National Press Club talk on self-driving cars, Hart was asked “What scares you the most about autonomous cars?”
He answered: “I think people are wildly underestimating the complexity of bringing automation into the system involving Joe Public. So there’s not one thing, it’s just sort of the total picture is unnerving to me.”
Schachter, who is also a Board member for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, has long been concerned about the rush towards driverless cars, as he explained in a February 2016 op-ed for The Hill, “Smart people need to take driving tests; smart cars should too!”
He told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that “Until the government is allowed to test its software system and the vehicle it operates, or view the testing performed by its developer, we’ll have no idea if a fully autonomous vehicle drives better than a person, or is safe enough to drive among people.”
We will need independent third-party testing under every plausible real-world situation — as we do for all other aspects of car safety today — before anyone can have confidence.
But right now, companies like Tesla, GM, Google, and Uber, keep their data under wraps. So any real-world testing they are doing is basically using their drivers — and any other drivers and pedestrians they encounter — as human guinea pigs.
The path toward the kind of robo-taxi that you see in science fiction movies is going to be a long and complicated one. Even Wired magazine — which opens its 2018 “guide to self driving cars” by saying we are now at the “how did anyone ever think this wasn’t inevitable?” stage — concludes, “forget the idea of owning a fully self-driving vehicle. The idea of a car that can handle any situation, anywhere you want to go, is decades off.”
So hold on to your driver’s license.