Robotaxis cheat: autonomous driving doesn’t have to be so autonomous

Autonomous vehicles have had a very intense summer, notably from Waymo and Cruise, properties of giants Google and General Motors. These are two of the launch further in the race to master this technology, which, however, had to stop in recent months.

On August 11, 2023, the two companies received approval from the State of California to begin offering 24/7 autonomous taxi services for a fee (until then, their operations were limited to low peak hours). traffic density ). The city of San Francisco opened up to these services for the first time.

Their joy did not last long. A few days later, on August 19, state authorities fined Cruise for several serious mistakes that had occurred the night before. First, the robot taxi crashed into a fire engine responding to an emergency. In another incident a few hours later, the car was normalpiloted by a human who jumped a traffic light and ran over one of these robot axes.

In total, Cruise had to cut the 300 vehicles it had circulating in the city in half. However, the finishing touch was still missing. launch from General Motors and this one arrived a few days ago, when the news broke that the state of California revoked its license for an autonomous vehicle after one of its models failed to detect that a person had passed under it. Following this, Cruise announced that it was shutting down all of its operations in the United States. Waymo has decided to slow the pace of its expansion.

The harsh reality is that a launch which does not circulate is a launch which does not bring benefits. That’s the problem when you’re immersed in a business and technology race trying to burn money, show results, and keep burning investors’ money until they run out of patience or one of the companies emerges as a winner.

What is the situation now

Technologically, the fact that hundreds of autonomous vehicles were driving around the city is a great feat. Waymo and Cruise have driven a total of nearly 13 million driverless miles, including more than 6.4 million miles in San Francisco since the start of 2023. Because California law requires autonomous car companies report every major accident publiclywe know a lot about its performance.

In total, the two companies have reported just over 100 driverless vehicle accidents. It may seem like a lot, but they occurred in about 10 million kilometers of driving. This corresponds to one accident per 100,000 kilometers, which is roughly five years of driving for the average motorist.

However, other important events are not included in these statistics, like beating dogstin hits (in which In most cases, the robot taxi is the victim and the driven vehicle flees)or that an autonomous vehicle spontaneously combust.

Looking back, what the big tech companies promised us was cheaper, faster and safer urban transport. One of the biggest critics of this technology is the researcher Filip Piekniewski, who has already warned that after 100 billion dollars invested in this technology, six companies have gone bankrupt, three are trying to survive and only two seem to be doing well.

Piekniewski’s position is probably too radical. In my case, I am convinced that autonomous driving will be achieved, although perhaps we need deeper changes.

In many media you can find information that 90 to 94% of traffic accidents are caused by human error. The history of this number dates back to 1979. Subsequently, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, published a two-page document in 2015 that said that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the causal chain of the accident, was attributed to the driver in 94% of accidents.

A little later, the agency emphasized that “although the critical reason is an important part of the description of the events that led to the accident, it should not be interpreted as the cause of the accident.”

The argument of replacing the driver with an algorithm to reduce the 94% of human causes is therefore false. Numerous authoritative voices in the field of road safety have raised their voices against this misleading use of statistics.

Perhaps, therefore, autonomous vehicles should not reflect the number of accidents as their main metric, but should have their own metrics. And it is probably also important to remember that every autonomous vehicle on public roads has a driver for people’s safety on board or somewhere remote observation and control.

Autonomous vehicles may not be so autonomous

Just a few days ago, New York Times public article this brings out the colors of the Cruise and those safety controls.

According to journalists from New York Times, the autonomous vehicle company employed an average of 1.5 safety drivers per vehicle, and they had to intervene in driving very often. If this were true, it would be logical to ask whether the rest launch robotaxis do the same traps. In that case, we would still be very far from the autonomous management of the popular imagination.

Perhaps autonomous driving is not the solution to our traffic problems. Perhaps we should think about technologically assisted driving that complements the person and helps him not to fail. After all, the technical feasibility of vehicles so complex as to touch human intelligence and intuition may be impossible within the urban mobility of our cities.

It is probably also important to understand that robotaxis is not just a technological invention, but to a large extent a socio-economic invention.

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