Monday, July 10, 2023

Is the Bloom Off the Self-Driving Rose?


Pardon the mixed metaphor—roses don't drive—but I couldn't think of another way to summarize the current prospects for truly autonomous vehicles.  For several years now, we have been promised that self-driving cars are just around the corner.  In particular, Tesla has marketed an expensive option for their electric vehicles called "Full Self-Driving Capability."  But as the NHTSA is asking Tesla for ever more detailed information about how it has deployed and modified its autonomous-driving software since 2014, it's beginning to look like the promised future of leaving all the driving to robot chauffeurs while we nap or play cards in the back seat is nothing more than hype.


What is reality right now regarding self-driving cars?  The Society of Automotive Engineers has established six levels of autonomy, ranging from 0 (what a Model T had, requiring you to do everything yourself) up to Level 5.  A Level 5 car could drive you anywhere that is physically accessible by a car without your having to lift a finger. 


The most advanced self-driving systems currently on the market are Level 3.  A Level 3 system such as that in the Honda Legend, which was introduced only in Japan in limited quantities, really does drive the car without human intervention, but reserves the right to ask the human to take over if things get too hairy.  "Hairy" in this case can mean something as mild as a rainy day, which sets up weird reflections on streets and can confuse even deep-learning AI systems. 


Tesla's much-publicized "Full Self-Driving Mode" is only a Level 2 system, because the occupant is supposed to be prepared to start steering at any time.  People routinely violate this rule, however, which is how several accidents involving supposedly self-driving Teslas have happened.


Computer scientist and engineer Anthony Levandowsky ought to know the self-driving score if anybody does, as he got into the business way back in 2003 when he teamed with some fellow U. C. Berkeley engineers to enter a self-driving motorcycle in DARPA's 2004 Grand Challenge.  He went on to work for Google, left Google for Uber amid lawsuits charging theft of intellectual property, was convicted of same, and pardoned by President Trump on Trump's last day in office.


If anybody has an insider's perspective on self-driving vehicles, Levandowsky does.  What is he up to now?  He runs a company that converts giant open-pit quarry trucks to be autonomous vehicles.  And in an interview with Bloomberg News, he says that the kind of highly restricted environment in which such trucks operate may be the best that truly autonomous driving can do for the foreseeable future.


While there have been numerous technical advances in sensors, computing power, and AI in the two decades or so that Levandowsky has been in the business, self-driving cars are up against a truly astounding opponent:  the average driver.  As the Bloomberg article points out, suppose you see a couple of pigeons on the road ahead.  As an experienced human, you know that pigeons almost always fly away before your car lands on top of them.  And even if you are contending with a particularly dopey or hung-over pigeon whose situational awareness isn't up to snuff, running over a pigeon is not going to ruin your car.  So it's no big deal to see some pigeons in your path if you're driving.


But to an autonomous vehicle system that may never have encountered these particular pigeons on this particular stretch of road under these particular lighting and weather circumstances, it's a totally novel experience.  And most prudent programmers will insert a default "brake when in doubt" operation when the system encounters something that might be dangerous.  So what may well happen is that the car suddenly brakes, and the driver following you may not notice in time, leading to a rear-end collision or even a pileup on a busy freeway—all because of a pigeon.


Multiply this scenario by the thousands of other ones that come up all the time, and you begin to understand why self-driving taxis are found only in highly restricted areas of certain cities, and why so many of the demonstrations of self-driving cars take place in California, Arizona, and other places where clear skies can be counted on.  Levandowsky takes the position that every so-called self-driving car out there is really just a pilot project, and Tesla even makes this condition explicit, calling their system a "beta version," meaning it's still under development. 


So when, if ever, are we going to get to have our little cocktail among friends in the back seat, heedless of the weather or the traffic?  I can picture only two situations in which even some people can get to experience this in what remains of my lifetime.


One is if cities establish self-driving-only zones in which only self-driving cars with similar operating systems are allowed.  This type of operation will never be a mass-market phenomenon, but it essentially transfers Levandowsky's self-driving quarry trucks to dense downtown areas, where the environment can be controlled, perhaps with strictly-enforced rules on pedestrians.


The other would extend this principle to an entire region or country.  Maybe we should start with Lichtenstein.  Only self-driving cars would be allowed on the roads.  This will probably never fly in the U. S., but it might take place in some dictatorial environment such as China or North Korea—assuming North Koreans ever get rich enough to buy their own cars.  And even then, the rest of the environment is still going to cause lots of problems—pigeons can't read highway laws, and they're going to land on the road anyway. 


It's kind of a shame, really.  Part of me was looking forward to handing the whole responsibility of driving over to some system that had proven itself at least as trustworthy as your average taxi driver.  (Not the taxi driver I wound up with in Amherst, Massachusetts once, who had been out "fishing" with a six-pack and hit a curb, blew out a tire, stopped at a gas station, got the tire fixed, and still got us to our flight to China somehow.)  But now it looks like that's going to go the way of other Jetson-inspired dreams, like personal flying saucers.  Of course, if they do get batteries good enough to operate self-flying one-person drones, we could rewrite the FAA rules a lot more easily than redoing all the traffic laws.  But you'd still have to deal with those pesky pigeons.


Sources:  The Bloomberg News article "Even After $100 Billion, Self-Driving Cars Are Going Nowhere" appeared on Oct. 5, 2022 at  I also referred to the J. D. Power website for the SAE's six levels of autonomous-vehicle operation at

and, as well as the Wikipedia article on Anthony Levandowsky.

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