Dumb and dum­ber

In­tel­li­gent cars, not-soin­tel­li­gent hu­mans. Should the lat­ter be re­pro­grammed to suit the for­mer?

Financial Mail - - SPECIAL REPORT -

The best ac­com­pa­ni­ment for ro­bot cars is … ro­bot peo­ple. As mo­tor com­pa­nies and their tech­nol­ogy part­ners pump bil­lions of dol­lars, eu­ros, yen, yuan and pounds into self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles, one ob­sta­cle stands ob­sti­nately in their way: the hu­man be­ing.

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is no match for hu­man in­tel­li­gence — or, rather, the lack of it. The first recorded pedes­trian death in­volv­ing a fully au­tonomous ve­hi­cle hap­pened in the US this year when a self-driv­ing Uber car hit a woman in Tempe, Ari­zona. The in­ci­dent added to grow­ing pub­lic con­cern about the safety of such ve­hi­cles.

A re­cent US sur­vey found that nearly 50% of con­sumers polled said they would never buy a fully au­tonomous ve­hi­cle. That’s up from 30% two years ago. The sur­vey, by Cox Au­to­mo­tive, found pub­lic con­fi­dence has been shaken by a se­ries of mishaps dur­ing test­ing of au­tonomous ve­hi­cles.

An­other re­search firm, Gart­ner, has shifted au­tonomous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy into the “trough of dis­il­lu­sion­ment” cat­e­gory of its trends anal­y­sis.

Most re­spon­dents in the Cox sur­vey said they pre­ferred cur­rent au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy to the fu­ture kind. Only 16% would feel safe in a fully self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle that did not al­low them to take back con­trol.

While 75% of the sam­ple said fully-au­tonomous ve­hi­cles need real-world, in-town test­ing in or­der to be per­fected, 54% said this should not take place any­where near them.

De­fend­ers of self-drive tech­nol­ogy say there’s noth­ing wrong with the tech­nol­ogy it­self. The prob­lem is un­pre­dictable peo­ple: jay­walk­ers and mo­torists who don’t ad­here strictly to traf­fic rules. The Ari­zona in­ci­dent in­volved a woman walk­ing her bi­cy­cle across a road at night. But a pre­lim­i­nary re­port says be­cause she was out­side the of­fi­cial pedes­trian cross­ing zone, the Uber’s sen­sors failed to ac­cu­rately in­ter­pret the data, caus­ing what safety of­fi­cials have quaintly called a “false pos­i­tive”.

US pub­li­ca­tion Au­to­mo­tive News quotes a sci­en­tist as say­ing: “The prob­lem with most of the com­puter vi­sion sys­tems that self­driv­ing cars use is that they sim­ply put a bound­ary box around an ob­ject and ap­ply a la­bel — parked car, bi­cy­cle, per­son — with­out the abil­ity to an­a­lyse any­thing hap­pen­ing in­side that box.”

One prom­i­nent au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­o­gist says the an­swer is for peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly pedes­tri­ans, to be re­trained. This has caused a fierce back­lash from some other sci­en­tists, who ac­cuse their peer of ar­ro­gance for sug­gest­ing the world should bend to ac­com­mo­date flawed tech­nol­ogy.

This led Uber and Waymo, two of the com­pa­nies lead­ing the way in self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy, to is­sue state­ments that their tech­nol­ogy is be­ing de­signed to han­dle the world as it is, not as they would like it to be.

Sev­eral com­pa­nies are step­ping back from ear­lier au­tonomous­driv­ing pro­duc­tion dead­lines amid grow­ing ac­cep­tance that these were un­re­al­is­tic. Com­mer­cial driver­less trucks were pre­dicted to be ready for op­er­a­tion by 2020. Daim­lertrucks now says it will be at least 2023.

De­spite de­lays, spend­ing on fu­ture tech­nolo­gies re­mains undimmed. Toy­ota is in­vest­ing $500m in Uber in pur­suit of au­tonomous ride-shar­ing. The Ja­panese ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­turer has pre­vi­ously ploughed $1bn into

Grab, an Asian ri­val of Uber.

Ja­pan is al­ready home to what it claims to be the world’s first au­tonomous taxi ser­vice on pub­lic roads. The cen­tral Tokyo ser­vice car­ries pas­sen­gers along a fixed

5.3 km route between the cen­tral rail­way sta­tion and a pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment district. For now, the pi­lot project — which has a driver in the ve­hi­cle in case of emer­gency — of­fers four daily re­turn trips but the plan is for fully com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions by 2020, when Tokyo is due to host the Olympic Games.

Other com­mer­cial au­tonomous projects are also up and run­ning. In the Cal­i­for­nian city of San Jose, food re­tail­ers have part­nered with a tech­nol­ogy com­pany to of­fer driver­less gro­cery de­liv­er­ies to nearby res­i­dents.

Ja­pan also hopes to take the lead in fly­ing cars. The gov­ern­ment has an­nounced plans to in­cor­po­rate them in its pub­lic trans­port sys­tem. It is talk­ing to com­pa­nies like Air­bus, Boe­ing, Uber and Ja­pan Air­lines.

Be­sides help­ing al­le­vi­ate traf­fic stress in — and over Tokyo — the project would also pro­vide trans­port to re­mote ar­eas of the coun­try and of­fer tourism ser­vices.

The coun­try’s trade min­istry has re­port­edly al­lo­cated $40m for the de­vel­op­ment of fly­ing-car com­po­nents. It said in a state­ment: “The Ja­panese gov­ern­ment will pro­vide ap­pro­pri­ate sup­port to help re­alise the con­cept of fly­ing cars, such as the cre­ation of ac­cept­able rules.”

Move over, peo­ple: Are ro­bots bet­ter suited to fu­ture driv­ing?

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