Aah, for the old days, when the future seemed so bright.
I’m not talking about just before the pandemic started, though that would qualify too. I’m talking about the fall of 2017, only three years ago. Then there was so much news about driverless cars, certain to upend American employment and vastly more, that, so other topics could squeeze in, I needed to put formal limits on how much I would write about. For example, The New York Times devoted almost an entire Magazine to different aspects of what seemed to be an inexorable mass of social changes, not to mention a total ground transportation makeover – do you remember the picture of the steering wheel moldering in the earth?
Now, though, progress and milestones here seem to have come to an end. Published articles are so scarce that I will be going back over four months to get you the latest.
We begin with “Self-Driving Cars Are Taking Longer to Build Than Everyone Thought,” by Roberto Baldwin, dated May 10th but from the April 2020 issue of Car and Driver. That publication won’t need to consider any name changes for a while, as “humans take the ability to manage the cognitive load of driving for granted, but building a computer system that can match our abilities is extremely difficult.” That reminded me of the longstanding lack of automated facial recognition, which ended, though much later than observers around say 1990 thought. Per Baldwin, “years of research and development are still needed before Level 4 autonomy – in which the car can safely perform all driving tasks but only in limited areas – is accessible to consumers” – in fall 2017, that got a consensus projection of completion by the next year’s Christmas. Now, such forecasts include Nissan saying “that it’s unlikely to produce self-driving cars before the end of the decade,” and companies are still dealing with a need for common standards, what safety levels consumers will need, and known or feared resistance from the one-off 2018 pedestrian death.
Soon after, The New York Times published “This Was Supposed to Be the Year Driverless Cars Went Mainstream,” on May 13th by Cade Metz and Erin Griffith. They reminded us that “tech companies once promised that fully functional, self-driving cars would be on the road by 2020 and on the path to remaking transportation and transforming the economy.” They blamed the coronavirus for preventing cars from being tested with two drivers, that “start-ups spend $1.6 million a month on average” (that seems, in context, like Puppy Chow to me), and that “bigger companies are hunkering down to wait out the delays,” making it clear that they have other problems – indeed, at least one firm was still struggling with getting vehicles to restart after they waited for traffic to pass, and, in general, “the cars still made mistakes in unexpected ways.” On the same date the Times also came out with Shira Ovide’s “Where Is My Driverless Car?,” in which she claimed that “the ubiquitous computer-driven car that seemed just around the corner for a decade is now further away than ever,” and blamed mostly technology difficulties.
One possible semi-solution for driverless technology companies has been, per Baldwin, focusing instead on assistance structures for other vehicles. However, per “AAA: Partially automated driving systems don’t always work” (Fox Business, August 6th), those aren’t ready either, with AAA researchers finding such technology from five automakers producing “problems every eight miles,” including staying in lanes and avoiding stationary vehicles in their paths. Overall, “researchers said little had changed from a test of four other vehicles in 2018,” with drivers getting “overly reliant on the technology” offsetting much of its advantage.
What’s really going on here? The problems are not financial – there has never been so much excess capital (if you doubt that, look at your bank’s interest rates), and potential profits, during most of our lifetimes, are into the trillions. The problems are not pandemic-related – for one thing, very well-paid engineers and their families could form pods with others and end the multiple-safety-driver issue. The problems are not technical – driving is algorithmic, and with continuing intense effort it can be solved. The problems are not with government regulations or slow federal movement – it’s all in private, generally at least potentially fast-moving hands. The problems are not excessive complexity – we landed on the moon 51 years ago, with only rudimentary software and project management knowledge. The problems are certainly not from a lack of use or applications for autonomous vehicles.
The problem is will.
For whatever reason, Americans no longer have what it takes to complete large technical projects. It’s an exaggeration to say that over the past 20 years the only trappings of American life which have changed are software and telephones, but not much of one. Until we understand and fix our will problem, nothing big and good will happen, be it hyperloop or viable supersonic transportation, cures for cancer and other chronic diseases, space settlement and industrialization, or anything else you can think of that has seemed within our grasp for too long. For now, we can kiss true technological progress, which now slows down or stops progressing when future developments seem too hard, goodbye – in driverless cars and everything else.