The much-hyped self-driving car of the future, so far, continues to be more Jetsons than anything close to reality, as “carmakers and technology companies have concluded that making autonomous vehicles is going to be harder, slower and costlier than they thought,” according to a story in The New York Times. Companies say that the automotive industry overestimated the arrival of such vehicles, which still struggle to anticipate what other drivers and pedestrians will do.
“A year ago, Detroit and Silicon Valley had visions of putting thousands of self-driving taxis on the road in 2019, ushering in an age of driverless cars,” the Times story begins. Now, said Ford CEO Jim Hackett at the Detroit Economic Club in April: “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” As OEMs try to resolve the most basic of persistent issues, Ford and Volkswagen said Friday that they’re teaming up to tackle the self-driving challenge. The two automakers plan to use autonomous-vehicle technology from Pittsburgh start-up Argo AI, in ride-sharing services in a few urban zones as early as 2021, the Times reports. And yet, Argo CEO Bryan Salesky admits that the industry’s promise of creating driverless cars that could go anywhere is “way in the future.”
Salesky said Argo and a number of competitors have developed about 80% of the technology needed to put self-driving cars into routine use —radar, cameras and other sensors that can identify objects far down roads and highways. But the remaining 20%, including developing software that can reliably anticipate what other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are going to do, will be much more difficult, he said.
A year ago, many industry executives promised that self-driving cars would be shuttling people around town in at least several cities by sometime this year, according to the newspaper story. Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced it would buy up to 62,000 Chrysler minivans and 20,000 Jaguar electric cars for its ride service, which operates in the Phoenix suburbs. General Motors announced it would also start a taxi service by the end of this year with vehicles, developed by its Cruise division, that have no steering wheels or pedals.
“There was this incredible optimism,” said 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.” But when a self-driving car being tested by Uber hit and killed a woman walking a bicycle across a street last year in Tempe, AZ, “almost everybody has reset their expectations,” Abuelsamid said.
One company, May Mobility, operates “autonomous shuttles” in Detroit; Providence, RI and Columbus, OH. They are hardly self-driving cars, but instead six-passenger golf carts. They travel short, defined routes at no more than 25 miles per hour. “A vehicle that needs to go at higher speeds will need more expensive, more exotic sensors,” said Alisyn Malek, the company’s CEO. “Using a low-speed vehicle makes the task of operating an autonomous vehicle easier, so we can use what works in the technology today.”
Malek believes it will take years and perhaps even a decade or more to develop driverless cars that could travel anywhere, any time. “Our focus is, how can we use the technology today?” she said. “We realize that today we have to start somewhere.”