Despite High Hopes, Self-Driving Cars Are ‘Way in the Future’

A yr in the past, Detroit and Silicon Valley had visions of placing hundreds of self-driving taxis on the street in 2019, ushering in an age of driverless vehicles.

Most of these vehicles have but to reach — and it’s prone to be years earlier than they do. Several carmakers and expertise corporations have concluded that making autonomous autos goes to be tougher, slower and costlier than they thought.

“We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Ford’s chief govt, Jim Hackett, stated at the Detroit Economic Club in April.

In the most up-to-date signal of the scramble to regroup, Ford and Volkswagen stated Friday that they had been teaming as much as deal with the self-driving problem.

The two automakers plan to make use of autonomous-vehicle expertise from a Pittsburgh start-up, Argo AI, in ride-sharing companies in a number of city zones as early as 2021. But Argo’s chief govt, Bryan Salesky, stated the trade’s greater promise of making driverless vehicles that would go wherever was “way in the future.”

He and others attribute the delay to one thing as apparent as it’s cussed: human habits.

Researchers at Argo say the vehicles they’re testing in Pittsburgh and Miami need to navigate sudden conditions day-after-day. Recently, certainly one of the firm’s vehicles encountered a bicyclist driving the mistaken method down a busy avenue between different autos. Another Argo take a look at automotive got here throughout a avenue sweeper that out of the blue turned an enormous circle in an intersection, touching all 4 corners and crossing lanes of site visitors that had the inexperienced mild.

“You see all kinds of crazy things on the road, and it turns out they’re not all that infrequent, but you have to be able to handle all of them,” Mr. Salesky stated. “With radar and high-resolution cameras and all the computing power we have, we can detect and identify the objects on a street. The hard part is anticipating what they’re going to do next.”

Mr. Salesky stated Argo and lots of rivals had developed about 80 p.c of the expertise wanted to place self-driving vehicles into routine use — the radar, cameras and different sensors that may determine objects far down roads and highways. But the remaining 20 p.c, together with growing software program that may reliably anticipate what different drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are going to do, can be way more troublesome, he stated.

A yr in the past, many trade executives exuded a lot higher certainty. They thought that their engineers had solved the most vexing technical issues and promised that self-driving vehicles could be shuttling individuals round city in not less than a number of cities by someday this yr.

Waymo, which is owned by Google’s father or mother firm, Alphabet, introduced that it could purchase as much as 62,000 Chrysler minivans and 20,000 Jaguar electrical vehicles for its experience service, which operates in the Phoenix suburbs. General Motors introduced that it could additionally begin a taxi service by the finish of this yr with autos, developed by its Cruise division, that haven’t any steering wheels or pedals.

Captivated by the notion of disrupting the transportation system, deep-pocketed traders rushed to get a chunk of the motion. Honda and the Japanese tech large SoftBank invested in Cruise. Amazon, which hopes to ship items to its consumers by driverless autos, invested in Aurora, one other start-up in this space.

“There was this incredible optimism,” stated Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Navigant Research. “Companies thought this was a very straightforward problem. You just throw in some sensors and artificial intelligence, and it would be easy to do.”

Companies like Waymo and G.M. now say they still expect to roll out thousands of self-driving cars — but they are much more reluctant to say when that will happen.

Waymo operates a fleet of 600 test vehicles — the same number it had on the road a year ago. A portion of them are the first set of vehicles it will be buying through the agreements with Chrysler and Jaguar. The company said it expected to increase purchases as it expanded its ride service.

“We are able to do the driving task,” Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s chief external officer, said in an interview. “But the reason we don’t have a service in 50 states is that we are still validating a host of elements related to offering a service. Offering a service is very different than building a technology.”

G.M. declined to say if it was still on track to start a ride service “at scale” this year, as it originally planned. Its chief executive, Mary Barra, told analysts in June that Cruise was moving “at a very aggressive pace” without saying when commercial operations would begin.

China, which has the world’s largest auto market and is investing heavily in electric vehicles, is trailing in development of self-driving cars, analysts say. The country allows automakers to test such cars on public roads in only a handful of cities. One leading Chinese company working on autonomous technology, Baidu, is doing much of its research at a lab in Silicon Valley.

Tesla and its chief executive, Elon Musk, are nearly alone in predicting widespread use of self-driving cars within the next year. In April, Mr. Musk said Tesla would have as many as a million autonomous “robo taxis” by the end of 2020.

Tesla believes its new self-driving system, based on a computer chip it designed, and the data it gathers from Tesla cars now on the road will enable the company to start offering fully autonomous driving next year.

But many experts are very skeptical that Tesla can pull that off.

Mr. Salesky said it was relatively easy to enable a car to see and identify obstacles on the road with the help of radar, cameras and lidar — a kind of radar that uses lasers — as well as the software and computing power to process images and data.

It’s much more difficult to prepare self-driving cars for unusual circumstances — pedestrians crossing the road when cars have the green light, cars making illegal turns. Researchers call these “corner cases,” although in city traffic they occur often.

“If you’re out driving 20 hours a day, you have a lot of opportunities to see these things,” Mr. Salesky said.

Equally challenging is teaching self-driving cars the finer points of driving, sometimes known as “micro maneuvers.” If a vehicle ahead is moving slowly looking for a parking space, it is best to not follow too closely so the car has room to back into an open spot. Or to know that if a car is edging out into an intersection, it can be a sign the driver may dart out even if he doesn’t have the right of way.

The technology is available now to create a car that won’t hit anything. But such a car would constantly slam on the brakes.

“If the car is overly cautious, this becomes a nuisance,” said Huei Peng, director of Mcity, an autonomous-vehicle research center at the University of Michigan.

Some companies argue that the way to get more self-driving vehicles on the road is by using them in controlled settings and situations. May Mobility operates autonomous shuttles in Detroit; Providence, R.I.; and Columbus, Ohio. These are not minivans or full-size cars but six-passenger golf carts. They travel short, defined routes at no more than 25 miles per hour. In many cases they provide public transportation where none is available.

“A vehicle that needs to go at higher speeds will need more expensive, more exotic sensors,” said Alisyn Malek, the company’s chief operating officer. “Using a low-speed vehicle makes the task of operating an autonomous vehicle easier, so we can use what works in the technology today.”

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