A few weeks ago in Arizona, a Tesla, reportedly on autopilot, smacked into an emergency vehicle that was parked on the side of an interstate while an officer was investigating another accident.
Which got me thinking, where is my self-driving car?
2020 has thrown so many curves at us — a pandemic, racial unrest, an earthquake, an asteroid that might crush us on Election Day — that it almost seems someone is trying to make us forget about the promises. I was supposed to be able to eat breakfast and watch a movie on my way to work by now, remember?
In 2016, Business Insider described a fully autonomous car as one that “can drive from point A to point B and encounter the entire range of on-road scenarios without needing any interaction from the driver.” Then it said, “These will debut in 2019.” By 2020, the headline said, 10 million of these will be on the road.
In 2015, The Guardian’s Tim Adams quoted BMW’s Michael Aeberhard as saying, “We think sometime after 2020 we will be ready for the first highly automated function, which means that the driver will be actually able to do something other than monitor the system — read emails, call somebody, check the news, whatever.”
I guess “sometime” after 2020 leaves things kind of open-ended (although a typical trip down I-15 will reveal drivers already doing these things). But as my wife’s aging parents try to navigate doctor visits and shopping trips, and as I find myself staring down a short road toward adopting their daily routines, I will admit to being disappointed all of this is taking so long.
Which I shouldn’t be.
The history of life-changing technologies is one of trial, error, setbacks and, unfortunately, tragedies. A century ago, airplanes were for the brave and daring, and many people died from mechanical failures and user errors. That didn’t stop people and companies from trying. Even only a few decades ago, the rate of commercial aviation accidents was appalling by today’s standards.
Thirty years ago, emailing usually involved hooking up a modem and taking the family’s landline out of service while you connected to a distant server. Sixty years ago, the TV repair person was a regular house guest as people tried to get the horizontal hold button to actually hold. This didn’t stop us from forging ahead and spending lots of money on those technologies.
It’s just that driving is such a common and unusually dangerous part of everyday life. That makes mistakes a little harder to take.
Experts say perfecting the broad range of sensors needed by an autonomous car is a huge challenge. These sensors have to be able to detect other cars, road signs, pedestrians, bikers, random debris on the road and things humans barely think twice about, such as graffiti on a sign. The list of variables seems endless.
“Driving is one of the more complicated activities humans routinely do,” a recent report by Vox.com’s Kelsey Piper said. “Following a list of rules of the road isn’t enough to drive as well as a human does, because we do things like make eye contact with others to confirm who has the right of way, react to weather conditions, and otherwise make judgment calls that are difficult to encode in hard-and-fast rules.”
Add to that something I’ve yet to hear anyone address: How would police be able to pull over an autonomous vehicle if, for example, they suspect a passenger is a criminal or a kidnapping victim?
Perhaps an equally important question is, how would these vehicles be protected against hackers or terrorists?
The comforting thing is that Americans have faced huge technological problems before and eventually overcome them. This is especially true when a fortune is at stake, and you can be sure the first company to perfect this technology will win a jackpot.
The irony of those predictions a few years ago is that, by the time we got to 2020, we forgot about them because so many other dire problems took hold of our lives.
That accident in Arizona didn’t do much to distract us from those problems. That’s too bad, because as tedious as it is to wait for driverless cars to be perfected, imagining such a world is a lot more fun than facing what 2020 actually is like.