Friday, June 28, 2024

Driverless Cars in Mid-2024: A Niche, A Great Future, or Stalling Out?

Autonomous vehicles, through thrown off their horse (strange pun intended) years ago, have not gone away, and aren’t even out of the news as artificial hearts have long been.  What has been happening with them?

The largest recent news item was “Feds are investigating Waymo driverless cars after reports of crashes, traffic violations” (Corina Vanek Natalie Neysa Alund, USA Today, May 16th).  The National Highway Safety Administration got “reports of nearly two dozen incidents where a Waymo vehicle was the sole vehicle operating during a collision or the driving system allegedly violated traffic laws.”  There were no injuries, but “17 involved crashes or fires,” and the automated driving system “was either engaged through the incident, or, in certain cases when supervised by an in-vehicle test driver,” it “disengaged in the moments just before an incident occurred.”  Waymo gave itself a vote of confidence, with a spokesperson saying “we are proud of our performance and safety record over tens of millions of autonomous miles driven”; additionally, “according to data released by Waymo in December 2023… which was peer-reviewed by experts outside the company, Waymo vehicles were involved in 0.4 collisions with injuries per million miles driven, compared with humans who were involved in 2.78.”  This story graphically shows how autonomous vehicles are being held to vastly higher standards.

Travelers are showing an interest in “San Francisco’s Hot Tourist Attraction:  Driverless Cars” (Lauren Sloss, The New York Times, May 22nd).  There they “have been operating commercially since August,” though only through Waymo, as “popular pickup and drop-off locations” include “the Ferry Building, Pier 39, Coit Tower, and the Japantown Peace Plaza.”  They are “all-electric Jaguar I PACEs,” and are accessed through an app.  Trips are remotely monitored.  Although different in some ways, “perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of a first-time Waymo ride is how quickly it feels normal.”

A company not doing as well is the subject of “The Very Slow Restart of G.M.’s Cruise Driverless Car Business” (Yiwen Lu, The New York Times, May 30th).  General Motors is still using its “sprawling complex in Warren, Mich.,” but “G.M.’s driverless future looks a lot further away today than it did a year ago,” before “a Cruise driverless car hit and dragged a pedestrian for 20 feet on a San Francisco street, causing severe injuries.”  Since then, it has “slowed its breakneck development to a crawl,” and, per a consultant, “catching up with Waymo technologically is going to take three to five years at best.”  Yet GM’s CEO said the subsidiary “has made tangible progress.”

Meanwhile, we saw “Waymo, Zoox expand autonomous ride-hailing operations despite recent AV setbacks” (Jordyn Grzelewski, Emerging Tech Brew, June 11th).  Zoox is moving from three cities to five, but is only testing; Waymo “revealed that it expanded its ride-hailing service area in Metro Phoenix by 90 square miles, bringing its total service area to 315,” and as well as San Francisco, “operates… in Los Angeles, and is testing in Austin.”

For now, Waymo is the only normally available option.  But another competitor, nation-sized, is emerging, as “China Is Testing More Driverless Cars Than Any Other Country” (Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, June 13th).  In the city of Wuhan, “a fleet of 500 taxis navigated by computers, often with no safety drivers in them for backup, buzz around,” operated by “tech giant Baidu.”  No mention here, though, of a date when paying customers can ride in them.  That seems better though, than another major country, as, although resumed in March, “last fall, Japan suspended its test of driverless golf carts that travel seven miles per hour after one of them hit the pedal of a parked bicycle,” causing no injuries. 

All of this is much the same as 2023’s reports, and largely like the past five years’ worth.  While Waymo is piling up miles and a record, the others are too often stopped by small mishaps.  Companies’ levels of caution are based on the correct perception that such blips unduly scare people.  However, as before, we are paying too little attention to the upside of driverless technology.  Over 40,000 died in American car crashes last year alone, compared with zero in the accidents above.  A tenuous niche has been established – a great future autonomous vehicles still have, if we allow that.  Will we get to the point where extensive testing efforts are not halted for months by the likes of hitting a bicycle pedal?  The answer to that question is more important than any possible driverless technology improvement.  The choice, once again, is ours.

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