The hype of driverless cars has been strong in recent years. However, a recent article by transport expert Christian Wolmar suggests that things might not be progressing as well as the earlier hype suggested. Wolmar visited an autonomous vehicle exhibition in Germany and some of his observations are really interesting. This starts with a reference to the typical hype that surrounds driverless cars:
There is something religious about the fervour with which adherents to the driverless credo practise their faith and promise us a new kingdom. Their proselytising has indeed convinced many. Politicians are making outlandish statements, such as Jesse Norman’s two weeks ago, that ‘Our entire use of roads is to be revolutionised by autonomous vehicles’, and pouring large sums — a promised £180 million so far — into bizarre research projects such as the development of strange robot cars slower than a Reliant Robin and allowed only on pavements in Milton Keynes.
The public, too, has been won over. Ask the average Joe in your local or even Basil in his club, and they will sing the praises of a technology that will apparently end carnage on the roads and allow them to check their Twitter accounts while being driven to work.
However, it seems that when you dig behind the scenes a bit, as Wolmar does, things aren’t going as well as the hyped up media releases would have you believe.
Surprisingly, I met more doomsayers than purveyors of the autonomous driving dream. The starkest warning came from Tim Mackey, who styles himself ‘senior technical evangelist’ for Black Duck Software, a company that specialises in security issues around autonomous vehicles. He believes there will be a seminal event that will stop all the players in the industry in their tracks. ‘We have had it in other areas of computing, such as the big data hacks and security lapses,’ he said, ‘and it will happen in relation to autonomous cars. At the moment, none of the big players are thinking properly about security aspects and then they will be forced to.’ He pointed to a video showing on another stand in which a man was calling up a car from a garage using a phone app: ‘That sort of thing is just too easy to hack. There’s all sorts of software put into cars that is old and easy to access. We just have to hope that the wake-up call will be minor and not kill anyone.’ Indeed, in a test a few years ago, hackers were able to get hold of a car’s steering and braking systems and Mackey is convinced that criminals will one day use the same method.
It’s not just security risks that provide some of the upcoming challenges to speedy advancements of driverless technology. Recent high-profile accidents have made people worried, but at the same time the vehicle manufacturers (called OEMs now, for some reason) are stuck in a situation where shareholders are demanding huge investment in these new technologies, but the pay-off is a long way away:
More widely, there was a general expectation these suppliers were riding the crest of a wave that will hit the rocks soon. While there is no doubting the scale of this industry, with billions being invested every year, none of the OEMs has yet made a penny from selling a driverless car. This money, benefiting these exhibitors, is therefore a punt, a high-stakes bet there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. One, Johannes, told me: ‘I see a pattern like the dotcom boom. At some point, people are going to realise that the day when they start to get returns for their investment is far off, if ever. Then they will start pulling out and who knows how bad it will get. But the clever money will move somewhere else.’ The bad publicity caused by a couple of deaths in Tesla cars while its autopilot was engaged and by the Uber fatality may be seen as the start of public disenchantment with the concept.
Overall, the impression was that things are progressing slower than the hype would make you believe.
Of the 20 or so exhibitors I spoke to, not a single one believed autonomous cars would be on our roads within a decade. There are a myriad problems, ranging from insurance issues to the limitations of the technology and the resistance of the public to travelling in them. Rather than swallowing the fatuous statements from politicians about how driverless cars are going to change our lives, we need a sober assessment of their potential benefits, if any, and, crucially, of their downsides.
Another example of how much progress is required before we should be willing to let these things loose on our streets is captured by this recent tweet, which discusses the limitations of Toyota’s pedestrian detection systems:
— Timothy B. Lee (@binarybits) June 7, 2018
So, basically most pedestrians will be squashed by these things.
Make no mistake, there are some important potential benefits from driverless technology. Being able to squeeze much more out of existing roads means we won’t need to widen roads or build more of them. Plus safety systems should get better over time and substantially improve the safety of the transport system. But, as I discussed recently, there are huge unresolved issues with this technology – not just technical barriers that need to be overcome, but also proactive regulation to ensure driverless cars actually make our streets safer and better. Maybe it is a good thing that the technology is progressing slower than expected.