Friday, November 8, 2019

Autonomous Vehicles: The Hits Just Keep On Coming

Three months ago I posted on why self-driving car progress was stalling out, and how we could get it moving again.  Since then, the situation has changed – it’s become worse.

Soon after that date, Clyde Haberman’s July 14th New York Times “Driverless Cars Are Taking Longer Than Expected.  Here’s Why.,” offered a recap of a few of the technology’s problems:  insufficient mapping, which must be done “down to a few centimeters”; remaining issues with bad weather; the perception problem worsened by Boeing’s remarkably recalcitrant 737 Max troubles; and remaining fear from the sole pedestrian death.  There are also real and widespread legal issues, as described in David Shepardson’s August 29th Reuters “Waymo urges U.S. to ‘promptly’ remove barriers to self-driving cars,” including the need to “meet nearly 75 auto safety standards for self-driving cars, many of them written under the assumption that a licensed driver is in command of the vehicle using traditional controls,” which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which may not “complete a comprehensive rewrite of various safety standards” before 2025, will address in March.  Shepardson’s piece implicitly makes a case for development in limited areas, as is happening to a great extent now, to be, if successful, propagated after that.

More discouraging though was Brett Berk’s November 3rd Car and Driver “The Enemies of the Autonomous Vehicle.”  I’m glad to see that publication, which may someday need to drop the two last words from its name, weighing in here.  Berk started with the news that Chandler, Arizona, long a center for driverless cars, has seen “nearly two dozen” attacks, with people “pelting them with rocks, trying to run them off the road, challenging them to games of chicken, and slashing their tires.”  Some of that we can expect, by rather young perpetrators acting out of curiosity, and Berk saw no evidence of any organized revolt. 

The author, though, found more than that to cause concern.  An “earlier this year” AAA survey still showed that about 75% feared riding in autonomous vehicles.  A man, citing the pedestrian death, threatened one with a .22 pistol.  As likely, given the lack of widespread rollouts, “no national or industry standards currently exist for the regulation of these vehicles,” beyond banning them entirely as before.  And while the Chandler troubles were scattered, organizations named Save Driving and The Human Driving Association, the latter with almost 10,000 people, have popped up and are voicing a range of objections, including that self-driving cars would “enhance national divisions” between rural and urban and would provide new masses of data to the huge companies providing them.  There is also union opposition, some remarkably enlightened, with Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr. calling out autonomous vehicle developers for wanting above all to spend less money, and asking that those savings be used to help drivers whose jobs it has cost.  As well, the Cadillac Super Cruise partial automation now for sale does not consistently work, and Berk echoed Haberman’s observation that rain and snow still cause plenty of problems.

Then, as maybe the worst problem of all, we have hacking.  I still maintain that it can be beat, but its variety, sophistication, and technical intensity mean that will require a great deal of time and funds.  Per Berk, a benevolent Chinese research group found that “small stickers placed in a roadway were enough to convince the (self-driving) car to change lanes right into oncoming traffic.”  Overall, “cars could be taken over remotely and manipulated, militarized, or held hostage for ransom.”  As such vehicles have over 300 million lines of code, they have more vulnerable places than commercial planes with their 15 million.

For those of us in favor of automated vehicles, all of this is sad.  And unless research efforts regain their passion, and plenty of other stakeholders help out and clear the way, their state in 2025 won’t look much different from now, with, among other losses, another 150,000 dead Americans.  That would be even more sorrowful.

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