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Have Autonomous Vehicles Hit A Roadblock?

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Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently announced a new multimillion-dollar public-private research partnership in the pursuit of fully autonomous vehicles. The move is an indication that Arizona is doubling down on its status as an autonomous-vehicle testing hotbed—mere months after the first-ever human fatality involving an autonomous vehicle occurred on Arizona roads. Despite plenty of setbacks, automakers and tech companies remain committed to autonomous vehicles, with many saying that consumers will be able to hail a driverless taxi within the next couple of years. But serious cracks are beginning to emerge in this roadmap: Even younger generations are not yet onboard.

Plenty of invested capital is riding on autonomous vehicles. General Motors in December announced plans to deploy a large-scale fleet of driverless taxis in big cities by 2019. GM is also readying a vehicle with no steering wheel or pedals. The other market leader, Waymo (an Alphabet subsidiary), earlier this year launched the first-ever ridesharing service to operate without a human behind the wheel. Ford, meanwhile, aims to have a fully autonomous taxi service ready for consumers by 2021. And then there is the “me too” crowd, consisting of companies like Toyota, Honda, and Renault-Nissan that have made vague autonomous plans.

On the surface, it seems as if automakers are all-in on bringing autonomous vehicles to market. But here’s the industry’s dirty little secret: Few insiders believe that it’s going to happen anywhere near as quickly as the PR and IR departments would have you believe.

Attendees of Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Future of Mobility Summit (a gathering of the industry’s movers and shakers) were asked via live poll to estimate when consumers will actually be able to buy fully autonomous vehicles. The answer was damning: Nearly 75% said the milestone won’t be reached before 2030. Tech realists like Duke University engineering professor Mary Cummings have long known this secret: Cummings says that we’re 15 to 20 years away from a vehicle that “operates by itself under all conditions, period.”

Why exactly is full autonomy a long way off? Three main reasons: the technology isn’t ready; the regulations aren’t ready; and the public isn’t ready.

The most obvious challenge is the technology. It’s more than just the recent crashes: In the past two years alone, autonomous vehicles have also been caught running red lights and veering dangerously close to pedestrians. And that’s not counting the dozens of times that these vehicles would have crashed had a human test operator not intervened. Cummings believes that we will continue to see these mistakes until the virtual maps that power these vehicles are perfect: “If the map is wrong then the car is going to do something wrong.”

Sure, thanks to machine learning, the technology is inching closer to perfection. But progress becomes exponentially tougher the closer you get. By now, autonomous vehicles have mastered most of the “easy” scenarios like reading road signs, identifying other vehicles, and tracking lanes in good weather. The remaining work requires getting machines to make sense of situations in which rules disappear and higher-order human judgment takes over. We’re talking, for example, about encountering bad weather, driving in construction zones, and figuring out ambiguous lane markings or traffic signals.

Another barrier is a lack of uniform law and regulations. Currently, 33 states have either enacted or introduced legislation dealing with autonomous vehicles, with the particulars varying widely from state to state. Some states, like Arizona, have no formal regulations whatsoever.

A more fundamental challenge deals with our legal and insurance framework. If you are injured by a vehicle with no driver at the wheel, who is liable? The automaker? The manufacturer of whatever piece of software or hardware “caused” the accident? Or maybe nobody, if automakers succeed in getting consumers to sign contracts waiving their right to sue in the event of an accident.

Even if autonomous vehicle companies clear the above hurdles, there is one more barrier left: the general public.

According to Pew Research, 54% of adults are either “somewhat” or “very” worried about the development of driverless vehicles, compared to just 40% who are at least somewhat enthusiastic. Additionally, 56% say they would not personally want to ride in a driverless vehicle, compared to 44% who say they would want to do so. A separate survey finds that most consumers (64%) are worried about even being on the road with driverless cars. These survey results echo previous findings suggesting that consumers are skeptical of autonomous vehicles.

Part of the skepticism stems from our inability to process seemingly random twists of fate that take lives. In a car accident caused by a human, there is usually a logical, even relatable, explanation—like texting and driving. In a car accident caused by an autonomous vehicle, there is no such understanding. By their very nature, machine-learning algorithms cannot reveal their intentionality. America’s ingrained car culture is also working against autonomous vehicles. Boomers and early-wave Gen Xers have participated all their lives in America’s century-long love affair with automobiles. To them, analog cars bestow a sense of freedom that would be lost with autonomous vehicles.

To be sure, America’s attachment to the risk, independence, and privacy of car culture has a strong generational dimension. Millennials have shown far less attachment to car culture than their parents by any measure. Even so, just 19% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they’d prefer to drive a fully autonomous vehicle, barely above average. Millennials also are more likely to believe that we need a whole new crop of rules and regulations before driverless cars are unleashed onto the public.

In the near term, full autonomy can achieve profitability in certain niche conditions. It is already proving itself on farms and in mines. It may soon begin to take on long-haul trucking, which features hours on end of monotonous, routine highway driving. It could even provide shuttle services along limited, pre-planned routes. But commercial production for everyday use by individual drivers? That’s still a very long way off.

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