Self-driving cars? This is the automotive fail of the decade

The car and tech industry promised us something, which still hasn’t happened.

The 2010s will forever be remembered as the decade of the great digital transition.

Social media replaced traditional communications. And the Smartphone became our most valued possession.

Living in a world controlled by apps and digital newsfeeds, we have developed a complete trust of technology. It cannot fail and cures all ills. There is no real-world technical challenge that cannot be solved with a digital machine learning system. Or so we thought.

Our trust in digital technology companies has become so complete, that when a host of these promised self-driving cars, we believed them. Everyone believed them. And as 2019 nears its end – nobody has delivered.



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Tesla. Apple. Google. Amazon. And all the most advanced legacy car companies. They have tried and failed to deliver us a truly autonomous car in this decade of digital product triumph. Despite very ambitious promises over the last ten years.

                                                                   Image: Newspress

Self-driving cars have been deadly

The reality has been a succession of missed technology breakthrough deadlines. And awful crashes – which have claimed lives.

For all its amazing work in electric drive systems, Tesla has over-marketed the Autopilot function on its cars. And there have been five fatalities in crashes that involved a Tesla on Autopilot, providing a stark reality of how technology and artificial intelligence can fail – completely.

The reality is that autonomous cars are a promise that cannot be delivered upon. None of us wanted to believe that the inevitable march of technology would ever encounter an issue it could not easily solve. But even with enormous funding, nobody is close to making a safe autonomous car function.

                                                             

                                                              Image: AFP

It has been a humbling period for tech companies and traditional automotive engineers. But the truth is that driving complexity is enormous. And to our credit, human drivers do it extremely well.

The daily driving environment is simply too involved for a computer and sensors to understand. Every metre of a road can have a new dynamic challenge. Reflections off-road surface cat eyes, at just the wrong sun angle, for a second, can confuse a sensor. What if it is muddy and camera lenses are covered with muck?

uber volvo autonomous

                                                                  Image: Volvo

Humans are much better drivers

Deep peripherical perception is another thing that human drivers do much better than any artificial system can.

We scan a wide field of vision, intuitively, and can interpret if an animal might move into a road-crossing posture. Or if a child might break free from a parent’s hand on the pavement. Artificial intelligence can’t intuit that.

Autonomous driving systems can only operate in a perfect system, and how many times do you see rogue driving each day? Crossing a solid line. Turning without indicating. The autonomous driving computer simply cannot account for that – although you, as a human driver, can.

Programming the multitude of events you encounter and process on a short drive to the office, has proven too much for even the best computer scientists and machine learning engineers.

Without question, the greatest failure of the automotive industry in the last decade has been the embarrassing underachievement of autonomous driving capability.

Disclaimer: Wheels24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Wheels24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Wheels24.

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