Home » We’re Entering The Wising-Up Phase Of Self-Driving Cars And It’s About Damn Time

We’re Entering The Wising-Up Phase Of Self-Driving Cars And It’s About Damn Time

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I’m not sure if you’ve been feeling it, but there’s something happening right now in the automated driving/autonomy/self-driving cars space, and it’s not a lot of fun, but it’s actually good news for consumers. It’s a bit of a hangover, really, a feeling that the party’s over and the house is a mess and the wet spot you’re laying just might be pee. Now, that analogy doesn’t sound good, but it’s the catalyst that’s needed to get your ass out of bed, change the sheets, get in the shower, and start taking care of shit. This is the current state of driving automation: finally coming to terms with the scale and difficulty of the task, and finally starting to think it through without the hype.

The mood in the AV space is slowly moving to the realization that, hey, full Level 5 autonomy is hard, really hard, and maybe, just maybe, it’s not a reasonable or even desirable destination to target. Apple, for example, just revealed that it’s dramatically scaling back their plans for their somehow still-upcoming car, plans that once included no steering wheel or pedals and provisions for sleep. And our pals over at Tesla seem to now be backtracking on their plan to use a camera-only system, called Tesla Vision, for their automated driving systems and are now looking to add radar back into the mix. Argo AI went out of business, at least in part because Ford realized Level 4 was going to take longer to achieve than originally thought. That last one is especially surprising because out of all these autonomous driving startups, Argo AI had its shit together much more than many others.

Everyone seems to be wising up. At least, I hope they are.

The Apple announcement is especially interesting, because, at least according to the Bloomberg report and via their anonymous source, we can see a pattern of thought that I think shows a realistic state of the current technology and also how many questions there are still left to be answered. I say this based on these quotes from the Bloomberg story:

“… Apple executives grappled with the reality that its vision for a fully autonomous vehicle – without a steering wheel or pedals – isn’t feasible with current technology.

…the company is now planning a less-ambitious design that will include a steering wheel and pedals and only support full autonomous capabilities on highways…Apple plans to develop a vehicle that lets drivers conduct other tasks – say, watch a movie or play a game – on a freeway and be alerted with ample time to switch over to manual control if they reach city streets or encounter inclement weather.”

These quotes are significant for a number of reasons: first, if Apple – a company I think we can all agree is generally extremely capable technically (who among us doesn’t use a Pippin or Newton on a daily basis?)  – says full autonomy is beyond our current abilities, then I think that carries some weight. But even more interesting are the next parts, where the anonymous Apple person states that the plan is for “full autonomous capabilities on highways,” so, a sort of Level 4 system, where the automation is restricted to certain areas and situations.

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That’s fine, but then the quote goes on to describe how the driver can do other things, pay no attention to driving, u ntil they need to be “alerted with ample time” to take over, and cite conditions as common and capricious as weather as a possible reason why the driver would need to take over.

What this statement tells me is that Apple has a hell of a lot of work to do. Really, everyone in this space does, because so far I have yet to encounter a viable and plausible explanation from any AV maker regarding how a handoff from a completely disengaged driver to take over a car traveling at highway speeds would work.

Weather changes, like the quote from the Apple insider mentioned, can be sudden. What if the driver is asleep? Or drunk or wearing headphones not connected to the car’s audio system, or crying or laughing hysterically or moments away from orgasm or helping a child or pet or any number of things a human can be doing? How should the car handle a handoff where the driver doesn’t respond? And that’s just for planned handoffs, where the car knows it wants to pass control.

What about when the car miscalculates something, or a sensor fails or it encounters some bit of input that confuses it or the sun emerges from behind a tree to blind a camera or any number of other issues? Limiting the operating domain can help, but we’re still just talking about a normal highway here, at presumably highway speeds. Even if we abandon full Level 5 go-anywhere-do-anything autonomy as a pipe dream, there’s still so much more to figure out.

Now, I have no idea who this quote came from at Apple. I have no idea if it’s an engineer or an executive or the person who decided to not include a Micro SD slot on the iPhone. What I do know is that Apple’s new revised plans – from the little I can surmise from that quote – sound naïve.

Again, it’s not alone. Tesla potentially adding radar back to their suite of hardware after declaring that all they needed are cameras and that their cars were hardware-ready for full autonomy was also naïve, especially considering Tesla made the same claim in 2016 and had to upgrade hardware once already.

I hope all of these companies finally admitting that full, independent Level 5 autonomy may be out of reach for the near future will finally turn their attention to all of the other, non-technical problems that need solving, especially the issues of how to deal with uncooperative handoffs and failure management for when things inevitably go wrong. The whole industry needs to get over their idiotic pride and work together on the key problems of getting disabled AVs out of active traffic lanes and a common, expected procedure for dealing with a handoff that never happens.

This is the unsexy stuff, and it likely will require regulations and perhaps infrastructural changes and hardware, but there’s really no way around it if we want to find a non-magic Level 5 system to actually work in our reality.

Want special highways where you can comfortably and reliably peace out while your car drives? Then we’re going to have to get everyone to cooperate. And there’s hardly anything the American automotive landscape is worse at than standards and cooperation. We don’t even have a standard EV charger port, for fudge’s sake. (This is also why a country with more centralized control like China could very easily beat us to having semi-automated highway travel.)

I feel like some companies get it; I recently spoke with Volvo’s autonomy partner and was impressed with their approach (full interview coming soon) because it reverses the usual paradigm: it’s not pitched as a labor and attention-saving system, but a safety backup. Where most Level 2 semi-automated systems are designed so the driver monitors the car and is ready to take over, Volvo’s setup keeps the driver in control, with the computers watching, ready to take over if needed.

This feels like a more realistic and usable approach to maximizing the safety benefits with the current level of technology while avoiding the usual Level 2 vigilance problems.

Overall, I’m hopeful that these recent developments actually are signaling that we may finally be breaking out of the Unlimited Level 5 pipe dreams, the unwavering pursuit of which only impairs our ability to implement less comprehensive but still extremely useful systems that could enhance safety and give at least the most important automated driving benefits.

Remember, the best is the enemy of the good, even the good enough, especially if the best is some magical bullshit that’s probably not even worth banging our heads against the wall to achieve.


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50 Responses

  1. I’ve seen several comments implying that highway driving is the easier problem to solve than urban driving. To a human brain it makes sense. Less obstacles, relatively clear roadways, no sharp corners, no pedestrians or parked cars, etc. It seems like the simpler problem for us, but it’s actually the more difficult problem for ADAS.

    If you remember the old analogy “speed kills”, you’ll start to understand why highway driving is more difficult right now. The faster you go, the less time you have to react. In addition, a sensor that works well in an urban scenario may be unsuited for the highway because of it’s range (the other way you can buy more time to react). The further ahead you can “see”, the more time you have to react. Current sensors can’t see far enough ahead to safely react or allow enough time to notify the driver to take over (Level 3).

    This is one reason Musk was so full of it when he said Tesla didn’t need LiDAR (or even RADAR) for their system. Typical vehicle RADAR have a range of around 100 meters. Vehicle LiDAR will have a range of 200-300 meters. 300 meters triples the amount of time a system has to react which is crucial to highway safety. LiDAR also gives you a 3D map over a vertical and horizontal field of view that the current RADAR systems cannot match.

    Mercedes is currently selling vehicles with Level 3 autonomy in Germany, but they are limited to 60 km/h and below. They are equipped with LiDAR, but they are short range. The fidelity and awareness they are getting from the LiDAR increases system environmental awareness, but range is not sufficient for highway driving. Mercedes’ Level 3 system is coming to the US next year.

    Like Jason has been saying, autonomous driving is not an easy problem to solve, but focusing on safety rather than hype is the correct path forward. Unfortunately, not every player in the space is taking that approach. Hope my post has given you a bit of a new perspective on ADAS and where we need to go.

  2. Good. I’ve been saying for ages, driver-fatigue reduction systems are where we should be focusing, with GM’s Super Cruise probably the best of the bunch in terms of tracking awareness while also reducing workload. There are safety gains to be had with things like lane-centering and radar cruise as they make long-distance driving so much less tiring, but obviously the trick is not allowing people to get too comfortable.

        1. Trouble ahead, trouble behind, self driving bullshit just blows my mind…And can Elon please explain where my damn flamethrower is? And don’t give me that “lost in the mail” crap…

  3. That little red roadster in the lead-in photo reminds me of the car seen in a GEICO commercial that irritates me so much because it’s the front end of an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite with the back end of an MGA. Like they can’t use a “real” car for fear of licensing, pissing people off, or whatever. Same as they do on all types of other commercials where they have the grille logo blanked off. It’s annoying.

  4. Good. I wonder if all these hypetrain CEOs ever feel ridiculous about their blind prognostications? Probably not, since they have no shame and their main goal is to increase stock prices during their tenure. What’s really embarrassing is how a lot (not all) of the media jumped on the band wagon and any nails sticking up got hammered down. Either way, it’s nice to know reason wins in the end.

  5. I’m an avid motorcyclist, and like most of us who ride on the street, we’re both excited about and afraid of what comes next here.

    The current state of affairs is fairly scary. When I started riding many years ago, another rider noted that you’ll all of sudden notice how many people *aren’t* paying attention while they drive. These days, it’s the majority of drivers (not the people here, you guys know I don’t mean you!), and as I get older and my reflexes slow, it gets more and more concerning.

    I like the idea of a more predictable technological solution to this, but of course, it’ll be dependent on the tech working (and being kept up). However, it’s also a little unsettling, as it means the driving skill of most drivers will atrophy even further as they become dependent on it.

    For me, it’s heartening to hear that perhaps we’re going to drop pursuit of the theoretical perfect in favor of the pragmatic good.

    1. The way I see it atm, level 5 doesn’t happen if there are any manually operated anything within the road space, as everything will need to talk to each other, and know what the other is doing for it to really work. I don’t know how you feel about riding a fully automated self riding bike, but I sure as hell am out at that point.

    2. I was a motorcyclist, but I actually completely quit riding mainly due to how bad drivers have become. Things gradually went from the weekly close calls (you know, the ones easily avoided, but would have been crashed if you hadn’t taken evasive maneuvers because a driver did something they shouldn’t have) to multiple times a ride. Add in a kid and things just didn’t seem worth it anymore…

      1. Are you me?

        Same thing, same story. The drivers actively got worse and worse. Every time I think ‘maybe I’ll get another bike’ I see 5 examples of why I stopped.

    3. Let’s be real though: sometimes it’s us. I was driving to site today and noticed a clean-looking, silver e39 M5 with the license plate “LGNDYM5” (Legendary M5) and as I peered down out of the window of my box truck to see if the car had a stick or an automatic (as one does) I noticed that the driver—who was surely a car enthusiast—was on his phone.

      Not, like, giving it a quick poke on its mount to select a different GPS route or skip through the ads in a podcast, no. He had his left hand on the steering wheel, his phone in his right hand, and was hunting head-down through the apps on his home screen. I never did ascertain whether it was a manual due to the heavily-tinted windows, but it was obvious that buddy was not paying any attention whatsoever to the road.

  6. Indeed it’s about damn time! I still marvel at the fact that so many people actually believed it would be so easy. Billions wasted. 🙁

    I think we’re at least 25 years away from full autonomy, and that’s just for the flying cars (which I hear are just 10 years away ;)).

    1. Flying cars are an ironically easier problem because there’s less to hit up there and the physics are well known. The main issue is the bureaucrats. If you want to understand and maybe use self driving in 25 years… start playing with it now. Because when you need it your brain will have less ability to understand it, and that’s going to cause you issues. Watching this with a family member now.

    2. I wouldn’t say the billions in research was wasted. More like the CEOs promising a fully cooked Thanksgiving turkey in an hour after pulling a bird out of the freezer. It’s gonna take a long while longer, and we might as well research sensors, vision, pattern recognition, and control. We can always build self-driving Mars Rovers using that knowledge 🙂

      1. No i’m going with wasted
        The safety payoff was at several million spent.Going a hundred times past that amount was pure stupidity.
        Useful,reliable autonomy that pays back the billions spent is so far in the future it’s ridiculous.

      2. A lot of it was wasted, especially given the number of concurrent projects that duplicated efforts. With everyone competing in the space, the limited cooperation means that people were treading the same ground as others already had, only to hit the same walls later.

    3. I too was a heavy skeptic from (near) the start.
      Anyone with an inventive imagination could come up with dozens of deal-breaker scenarios. The fact is we simply cant make sensors that can recognize everything,all the time.

      1. My skepticism extends to the end goal. I don’t think Level 5 autonomy is a good thing, either. All it means is more driving, more vehicles, more wasted energy. People will set up their self driving cars to drive around in circles while they have dinner (cheaper than parking), people will send their empty cars out to the Hamptons and back to fetch Junior’s Lacrosse stick.
        We need less driving, and we need a society and infrastructure that allows us to lead fulfilling lives without having to drive everywhere. Keep driving for the fun (touges, cruising, track, whatever) and for the absolutely necessary parts.

  7. “The Wising Up Phase” is also called “the trough of disillusionment” on the Gartner Hype Cycle chart. When a new technology looks to be in reach and gets hyped in the media, expectations rise to “the peak of inflated expectations” when the technology is not at the point it needs to be to be fully realized. Virtual reality, 3D printers, Apple Newton handwriting recognition, and quite a few others have hit this curve before the technology became ready for them to be truly useful.

  8. I mean this would all be easier if it were like my old slot car setup. But that’s not feasible in the real world, a physical restrictor like that wouldn’t work. But we have a long ways to go and I too am happy that reality is setting in. Highway driving (for the most part) should be much easier for AI to navigate, but it’s the urban driving that scares the crap out of me.

  9. I’d be more interested in an AI HUD that draws my attention to things than a car that drives itself (if we are insistent on using AI for generalized driving tasks). The car can gather a lot of data and point out what seems unexpected, but I am significantly better at contextualizing the information.
    As I think you have said a few times, computers can stay attentive without involvement, while humans need to stay involved in a task to keep their attention. Having a driver supervise a computer is not playing to their strengths.

  10. Just like every technology, there’s the unknown phase, the over-hype phase and then the more rational phase. Hopefully we have started to finally move to rationality.

    One question I thought of last week on a 7hr+ trip back from Broken Hill, does any of the current semi-autonomous systems detect potholes or road kill and react?

    With the amount of freshly-killed kangaroo carcasses and balljoint-busting potholes I had to avoid on the mostly arrow-straight drive home, I can’t imagine how stinky or damaged my vehicle would have been after 700+ km if I let the computer drive and hit everything on the way through!

  11. Somehow I read the header as, ‘…entering the winding-up phase…..’.
    Visions of toy Beetles with a huge key on the back…

    [is this shit decaf, or what?]

  12. Businessweek had a solid cover article a couple of months ago titled “Self Driving Cars are Going Nowhere”. They extensively cover Anthony Levandowski (of Google/Uber trade secrets theft fame) and how even an early rabid evangelist like him has come to realize it ain’t gonna happen. Apparently now he’s working with autonomous earth movers where everything is controlled and in a closed environment.


    1. I first read of semi autonomous bulldozers only recently.It makes a lot of sense in certain situations.
      The version i saw had one guy overseeing several machines.
      It’s not like its a tough technical challenge. Besides the usual sensors for optimizing cut and load size,and the overall cut program, all they need to do is keep out of each others way XD
      It wouldnt be exaggerating to say it’s a hundred times easier than a fully autonomous car

    2. Earth movers are a great use, and farm equipment has used some autonomy (largely GPS-based) for a bit now, since a computer is generally better than a human at getting a combine to harvest a whole field as efficiently as possible.
      Controlled, closed environments with goals a computer can easily recognize and accomplish (level this area of ground is pretty perfect) are ideal for automation.

  13. Whoever thinks that inclement weather always comes with sufficient warning to allow a graceful handoff from AI to driver has clearly never driven through the Great Plains, where massive downpours sometimes manifest as a literal wall of rain that hits your car like a slap in the face. I’m glad that the industry is starting to realize that driving is probably about as difficult a task as natural language processing (“Hey Siri, play Spandau Ballet.” “OK, playing The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Prelude, by Ballet Dancing Queen.” “Fuck you, Siri.”) but I think they still have quite a bit of realizing to do yet.

    1. Hey wait a second – tech nerds have been telling us for years that we are the worst thing to happen to responsible transportation and that autonomy was the only thing that could save us. Now they’re telling us that when the shit gets real and conditions get most dangerous – torrential downpour, I-90 lake effect whiteout (complete with thundersnow!), foggy morning – that we’re the ones who should be (must be!) in charge?

      1. Sadly, the conditions you mentioned are the biggest potential benefits of autonomous driving. Unfortunately it would rely on things like embedded road sensors and car interconnectivity that, while they exist or could easly exist, just aren’t going to happen; at least in anything resembling the near term…

    2. Exactly!

      It will require dramatically more processing power (quantum computing?) and access to more information such as real-time weather data from automated weather stations placed along the highway every mile or so (maybe even more frequently), and most importantly, all of the cars on the highway must be communicating with each other to allow traffic issues and other potential problems to be predicted and passed on to all the other nearby vehicles. If all of the cars know what all of the other cars are doing/likely to do, it reduces the potential failure nodes in the whole system, which then reduces the the number of scenarios where the human needs to take over.

      None of that is remotely ready and won’t be for decades.

      1. Not to mention areas where there isn’t any connectivity, so no warning of inclement weather. I recently dropped a few hundred on a GPS just so I know where I am in the mountains/how to walk out if I stuff it in a hedge while playing.

        What convinced me we wouldn’t have full autonomy anytime soon was a small wind vortex at the end of a long bridge over a deep gorge a few years back: I kinda/sorta saw a bit of dust swirling just in time to slightly swerve against it or I might have sideswiped the car next to me. As I was driving an 8400lb work van, it might not have worked out well for the car. Or me.

    1. I’ve said it again and again: ADAS is best seen as an emergency backup. Like, my Alltrack has automated emergency braking, but I don’t rely on it. It’s there to maybe save my ass if I completely fuck up and would otherwise have hit something. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, well, I’m the one who fucked up.

      1. AEB is also good at MITIGATING collisions. It may not stop it, but it might reduce the impact. I was trying to explain that on a forum where someone was SHOCKED that a new vehicle had rear-ended someone. They were very concerned that it meant the AEB didn’t work. They didn’t understand that it doesn’t just prevent all collisions.

  14. I still think that all of the shit that Tesla put out to the world about fully autonomous driving was just drivel that Elon shouted at people working there and then mindlessly tweeted out to the world as an official statement. I don’t believe that any engineer that actually works on Tesla’s software and hardware believes it will ever work as Elon has demanded.

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