Self-Driving Cars Could Be Decades Away, No Matter What Elon Musk Said

In 2015, Elon Musk said autonomous cars that could be driven “anywhere” would be here in two to three years.

In 2016, Lyft CEO John Zimmer predicted that they would “nearly end” car ownership by 2025.

In 2018, Waymo CEO John Krafcik warned that an autonomous robocar would take longer than expected.

By 2021, some experts aren’t sure when, if ever, people will be able to buy a car without a steering wheel that pulls out of the parking lot.

Unlike investors and CEOs, academics studying artificial intelligence, systems engineering, and autonomous technology have long said that creating a fully autonomous car would take years, maybe decades. Now some are going further, saying that even if the investment already exceeds $80 billion, we may never get the self-driving car that was promised. At least not without major advances in artificial intelligence, which hardly anyone expected to come soon, or complete redesigns of our cities.

Even those who tout the technology the most — in 2019, Musk doubled down on previous predictions and said Tesla’s autonomous robotaxis will debut in 2020 — are beginning to publicly admit that experts disagree it may be true.

Self-Driving Cars Could Be Decades Away:

“A significant part of real-world AI must be completed to do complete, pervasive, and unattended autonomous work,” Musk himself recently tweeted. Translation: for cars to be driven like humans, researchers must create AI equivalents. Researchers and academics in the field will tell you that is something we don’t know how to do. Musk, on the other hand, seems to believe that’s exactly what Tesla will achieve. It constantly touts the next generation of the company’s “Full Self Driving” technology, actually a misleadingly named driver assistance system, which is currently in beta testing.

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A recently published article entitled “Why AI is Harder Than We Think” sums up the situation well. In it, Melanie Mitchell, a computer scientist, and professor of complexity at the Santa Fe Institute notes that as the deadline for the arrival of autonomous vehicles has slipped, industry insiders are redefining the term. Since these vehicles require geographically restricted test areas and ideal weather conditions, not to mention safety drivers or at least remote monitors, the manufacturers and proponents of these vehicles have incorporated all of those warnings into their definition of range.

Even with all those asterisks, Dr. Mitchell wrote, “none of these predictions came true.”

In vehicles that can actually be purchased, autonomous driving doesn’t manifest itself as anything more than enhanced cruise control, like the GM Super Cruise or Tesla’s optimistic autopilot. In San Francisco, Cruise, a GM subsidiary, is testing an autonomous vehicle with no driver behind the wheel, but humans monitoring the vehicle’s performance from the back seat.

And there is only one commercial robotaxi service operating in the US with no human drivers at all, a small-scale operation confined to a low-density section of the Phoenix metropolitan area, of Alphabet subsidiary Waymo. the accidents in which they hit, and their confusing behavior (to humans) were cited as possible causes. Recently, someone was confused by a traffic cone at a construction site.

“I didn’t realize I was hit or hit from behind, just like a human driver,” says Nathaniel Fairfield, software engineer and head of Waymo’s “behavioral” team. The company’s autonomous vehicles have been programmed to be cautious, “as opposed to canonical teenage drivers,” he added.

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Chris Urmson is the director of autonomous truck startup Aurora, which recently acquired Uber’s autonomous driving division. (Uber is also investing $400 million in Aurora.) “We’ll see autonomous vehicles on the road do useful things in the years to come, but to become ubiquitous it’s going to take time,” he said.

The key to Aurora’s initial launch is that it will only operate on roads where the company has already created high-resolution three-dimensional maps, Urmson said. Aurora’s main goal is for trucks and cars that use its system to travel further away from the road where it was originally set to be stationed, but Urmson declined to say when that might happen.

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News Source@ The Wall Street Journal

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