Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a significant uptick in the number of headlines decrying autonomous vehicle technology. Where previously the news had an aura of optimism, the prevailing winds have now shifted towards a cautionary tale of things gone wrong.
In an op-ed for the New York Times (“Silicon Valley-Driven Hype for Self-Driving Cars”), Lee Gomes hits the optimists hard. The initial salvo comes on the heels of the recent death of Joshua Brown, the Tesla owner who was allegedly the first casualty of the autonomous Autopilot system deployed in 2014. I say allegedly because the NHTSA and NTSB have only just begun a preliminary investigation into the crash.
Mr. Gomes offers us the tale of Mr. Brown being “the first casualty of the widespread and potentially dangerous belief that autonomous cars are much closer to being road-ready than they actually are.” With that thesis, he dives into a brief, but hardly unique, diatribe against Tesla CEO Elon Musk. To hear Mr. Gomes tell it, Tesla Autopilot users are the victims of Musk’s braggadocious swaggering and salesmanship. Were it not for Musk’s all-too-typical Silicon Valley penchant for “technological over-promising,” people would be more discerning of autonomous vehicle technology. It doesn’t stop at Musk, however.
Volvo, Google, and presumably a parade of other automakers and software engineers are also apparently at fault. By promising a level of automated driving that isn’t as safe as many suspect, it seems everyone from the Silicon Valley engineers to Detroit automakers are guilty of over-promising and under-delivering on the benefits of driverless cars. Mr. Gomes laments: “The sad reality of autonomous car technology is that the easy parts have yet to be proven safe, and the hard parts have yet to be proven possible. We’re nowhere close to Silicon Valley’s automotive ‘Tomorrowland.’”
Of course, “nowhere close” is a relative term. In 2004, DARPA hosted its first Grand Challenge, a prize competition for advancing autonomous vehicle technology. None of the vehicles completed the course. Some said we were nowhere close to autonomous vehicles, calling the results “a humbling display for unmanned robot technology.” A year later, during the Second Grand Challenge, five driverless vehicles completed the entire course, and only one of the 23 competing vehicles did not make it further than the furthest trip completed the year earlier.
Pessimists often get things wrong, especially when it comes to pontificating about technological progress. Even pessimists of impressive intellectual faculties have, throughout history, often been mistaken about their predictions. For example:
- In 1883, Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society of London, said: “It will soon become clear that the X-ray is just a joke.”
- In 1903, the President of the Michigan Savings Bank was doubtful about a new invention from Henry Ford, proclaiming: “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.”
- In 1932, Albert Einstein (yes, noted genius and physics pioneer Albert Einstein) said of nuclear energy: “There is not the slightest indication that it will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
- In 1943, IBM President Thomas Watson (ironically, the guy after whom IBM’s advanced AI computer, Watson, is named) said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
- In 1977, Ken Olson, the founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation, said: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
- In 1995, Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3com and inventor of ethernet, said: “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.
This is not to say the optimists always get it right, of course. (Looking back on the futurists of the 1950s, it’s a wonder we’re not all driving flying cars to spaceports and taking weekend trips to moon colonies.) It’s merely to suggest that a pessimistic attitude tends to favor the normal state of affairs, eschewing what is possible for the status quo.
Mr. Gomes may be right when suggesting, as Google’s Chris Urmson recently did, that autonomous vehicles—truly, autonomous vehicles, that is—are still decades away. Then again, that might end up being wildly incongruous with near-term advances in telematics, AI, and advanced computer processing power. Either way, decrying the ongoing trials and experimentations of deploying semi-autonomous technology certainly won’t help get us to the autonomous future any quicker. Rolling out semi-autonomous technology like Tesla’s Autopilot can help contribute to a better understanding of how drivers interact with these features, teaching the systems to learn through the real-world experience of actual human operators. Google’s small fleet of humanless robot cars is certainly contributing to advances in autonomous vehicle technology, but so is Tesla’s testing model; and Tesla’s data pool is much, much larger. Importantly, it is now the case that Tesla is “gathering more data from autonomous miles driven in a day than Google’s program has logged since its inception in 2009.”
There will continue to be hiccups as companies explore ways of improving this technology. But real-world testing has to be part of that trial and error process of determining what works and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. Experimentation is helpful. What isn’t helpful is decrying the leading innovators in this space as swarmy salesmen selling a bill of false hope to an unsuspecting public.