Opinion: A driverless vehicle update

Opinion: A driverless vehicle update


Many things are changing in the world today. But if a story on the Bloomberg Businessweek website is correct, one transformative development is not living up to its promise.

That would be autonomous cars, or vehicles so smart that they don’t need a real live person to drive them. Bloomberg reports that despite investments of up to $100 billion, these driverless cars are nowhere near ready for the road.

Even a driverless pioneer has turned negative, telling Bloomberg it would be difficult to find another industry that has spent so much money on research and development but has delivered so little.

Some of the stories about driverless cars are pretty funny. A bunch of test cars from Waymo, a Google company, kept showing up daily in a San Francisco neighborhood, apparently confused by a dead-end street. They did not go away until residents called a local TV station to come out for a look.

That’s one of many such tales that have made the rounds of social media.

“In one example, a Waymo car gets so flummoxed by a traffic cone that it drives away from the technician sent out to rescue it,” Bloomberg reported in its Oct. 10 edition. “In another, an entire fleet of modified Chevrolet Bolts show up at an intersection and simply stop, blocking traffic with a whiff of ‘Maximum Overdrive.’ In a third, a Tesla drives, at very slow speed, straight into the tail of a private jet.”

While many leaders of the industry continue to speak about progress, more objective observers say driverless cars are not just around the corner. More likely, they are decades away, and maybe even longer.

One of the biggest problems with driverless cars is their inability to master unprotected left turns. In fairness, this is one of driving’s riskiest actions, and misjudgments by human drivers are responsible for many collisions.

But isn’t that the point? The people who talk about artificial intelligence and autonomous driving say that, when properly trained, these vehicles won’t make mistakes in difficult situations. Some literally have said these vehicles have the potential to eliminate traffic fatalities and rush-hour traffic, and will disrupt the massive global automotive industry.

Maybe so. But if the computer programs can’t handle left turns into oncoming traffic, that leads to an obvious question: What else might this “intelligence” be missing?

In fact, the struggle to develop a reliable car that doesn’t need a driver is a testament to a different type of intelligence with proven skills. That would be the human brain, which when behind the wheel is capable of analyzing any number of situations , usually in a fraction of a second, and emerge safely virtually every time.

Even if driverless vehicles remain an elusive goal, the automotive industry has plenty of other disruption going on. That’s where the shift from gasoline-powered vehicles to electricity is well under way and picking up speed. That ought to be enough disruption for now.

— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal

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Jorge Oliveira

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