In a lengthy interview with Bloomberg News, republished by Autoblog, George Hotz, the serial entrepreneur who founded self-driving startup Comma.ai, has this to say about autonomous cars: “It’s a scam. These companies have squandered tens of billions of dollars.” In 2018, analysts put the market value of Waymo LLC, then a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., at $175 billion. Its most recent funding round gave the company an estimated valuation of $30 billion.
The definitive book on the effort to bring autonomous cars to market is Autonomy, written by Lawrence Burns, who headed the early efforts by Google to develop the technology. It’s a fascinating tale, filled with multiple twists and turns as the team struggled to find the answer to cars that drive themselves.
But despite all the money thrown at the problem by Google, Uber, Tesla, Zoox, Cruise, and countless others, autonomous cars are no closer to reality today than they were 5 years ago, and many of those companies are running for the exits, looking to cut their losses if they can.
Anthony Levandowski was part of the team at Google headed by Lawrence Burns. For a decade, he was one of the brightest stars in the field of autonomous driving before he disgraced himself by suddenly quitting his job at Waymo and jumping to Uber. What followed was a giant lawsuit between Waymo and Uber and several convictions for stealing trade secrets for Levandowski. Ultimately, he was pardoned by Donald Trump at the urging of Peter Thiel. Now he’s running a startup that is developing autonomous trucks for industrial sites. Levandowski says, for the foreseeable future, that’s about as much complexity as any driverless vehicle will be able to handle. “You’d be hard pressed to find another industry that’s invested so many dollars in R&D and that has delivered so little. Forget about profits — what’s the combined revenue of all the robo-taxi, robo-truck, robo-whatever companies? Is it a million dollars? Maybe. I think it’s more like zero.”
Tesla, of course, has played a big role in the self-driving world, first with its Autopilot technology and later with something it bills as “Full Self Driving,” a now $15,000 add-on that our own Fritz Hasler says is not worth the money, even in its latest iteration that was just released by Tesla. The company has done a number of zigs and zags of its own over the years, publicly breaking with Mobileye and its camera-based system to embrace radar. Now it has transitioned away from radar and gone back to emphasizing cameras again. The only thing it won’t do is use lidar, because CEO Musk sees it as unnecessary and costly. He probably also doesn’t want his car crapped up with ugly bumps and bubbles, and who can blame him? Teslas are blessed with timeless designs, thanks to Franz Von Holzhausen. Adding lidar would ruin their appearance.
A favorite industry myth is that humans are terrible drivers, but it’s not even close to true, says Bloomberg. Throw a top-of-the-line robot at any difficult driving task and you’ll be lucky if the robot lasts a few seconds before crapping out. “Humans are really, really good drivers — absurdly good,” George Hotz says.
Fatal accidents are largely caused by reckless behavior — speeding, drunks, texters, and people who fall asleep at the wheel. Although most of the accidents reported by self-driving cars have been minor, the data suggests that autonomous cars have been involved in accidents more frequently than cars driven by humans, with rear-end collisions being especially common. “The problem is that there isn’t any test to know if a driverless car is safe to operate,” says Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner, a market research firm. “It’s mostly just anecdotal.”
Connected Cars May Be The Answer
Much of the hype and hoopla about autonomous cars is focused on how they will make driving safer. There’s no question that people kill themselves and others at an alarming rate while driving. The World Health Organization says about 1.3 million people die from traffic-related injuries each year. And yet if you study that last paragraph, the primary causes of road deaths are factors that impair the ability of drivers to do what they usually do quite well — excessive speed, intoxication, texting, or falling asleep at the wheel.
According to the New York Times, there is a new technology coming available that could address many of those human failings. It is called C-V2X, which stands for cellular vehicle–to–everything technology. It allows vehicles to communicate with each other and with the surrounding environment, which could reduce collisions considerably.
With V2X technology, a car whose sensors or cameras detect a pothole in the roadway will be able to notify their drivers, giving them time to take evasive maneuvers. Highway workers will be alerted to an oncoming vehicle that’s traveling too close to them. School bus drivers will be warned against letting children off if a vehicle fails to stop. Bicyclists and drivers will be made aware of each other before possible collisions.
“While passive safety such as seat belts and active safety from such things as lane departure warning has improved occupant safety, fatalities outside the vehicle are growing,” said Anupam Malhotra, senior director of connected services for Audi of America. “We’re now working to provide cooperative safety, sharing safety-related information with others.”
Audi is working with bicycle and equipment manufacturers to offer V2X transponders for cyclists and expects to begin offering V2X in its 2025 model year vehicles. “We’re currently including V2X in the development of our vehicle architecture, as we can’t wait, and we need to be ready,” said Mark Dahncke, Audi of America’s director of product communications. Ford is working on something similar.
Connected cars will use LTE cellular technology to communicate with each other directly. Eventually, the system will switch to 5G standards, allowing for faster communication. Pedestrians, bicyclists, highway workers, and emergency vehicles will all be able to be part of the communication network. Best of all, the technology is expected to be inexpensive, costing manufacturers much less than lidar sensors and mobile supercomputers that autonomous cars rely on.
V2X systems hold great promise, but the focus needs to be on getting drunks, texters, and speeders off the road. The ability to detect someone who is inebriated or drug-impaired exists today but is not used. Manufacturers insist it is hard to make it work accurately, and yet they expect us to believe they can make a car that will drive from LA to New York City and park itself without human intervention? Come on. Stop taking us for idiots and get it done.
Same with texting. iPhones now know when we are driving and disable themselves until they can be used safely. Speeding is something that all modern cars can control. Some may whine that they don’t want nanny cars, but driving on public roads is a privilege, not a right. If you want to speed, join a motorsports facility that offers track days. Otherwise, understand that when you use a public street, public safety takes precedence over your dream of being a NASCAR driver.
How simple would it be to have a system that immobilizes a car unless a licensed driver is at the wheel? People without a license or a suspended license have no business driving. Period. Freedom does not imply the ability to maim or kill other human beings. Do whatever you wish on your own personal private property, but if you expect society to build public roads, public safety is more important than personal liberty.
There are so many ways driving can be made safer and it doesn’t require massive investments or hugely expensive options to make safe driving a reality. The dream of autonomous cars is an illusion, at least for the foreseeable future. It works in limited cases on known routes that don’t involve left turns against traffic. Let’s deal with the possible, not the fanciful.
Highway deaths are a clear and present danger, but those who want to fix the problem with autonomous driving systems are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The solutions are right under our noses. Let’s use them to end the carnage on our streets and highways.
Don't want to miss a cleantech story? Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!
Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.