More Big Players Jump On Robot Cars Bandwagon.
But Will Technology Be Ready In Time?
“we do not expect material penetration of fully autonomous cars until as much as 15 years from now”
A deluge of news apparently heralding the dawn of the age of the driver-less car has obscured the fact that the technology may not be ready in time.
Robot cars may appear within 5 years, but they might well be severely limited in range to small, safe and predictable areas. They will be slow, and might not appear if the weather turns nasty.
Ford Motor Co kicked off the latest round of autonomous car euphoria with news it will introduce its own vehicle for taxi or ride-sharing in five years time.
Auto components giant Delphi Automotive and Israel’s Mobileye driving assistance technology company announced they would team up to provide autonomous vehicle systems by 2019.
Ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies Inc of San Francisco and Chinese owned Volvo Cars will test a fleet of big XC-90 SUVs on the streets of Pittsburgh.
These developments were often greeted by analysts and investment bankers as though the technology was proven and almost ready for the public to jump into the first little modules with steering and brakes operated by computers.
Hang on a minute
One investment banker saying hang on a minute was Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley.
“While there may dozens of firms making robo-taxis for public roads by 2021, we do not expect material penetration of fully autonomous cars until as much as 15 years from now,” Jonas said in a report on Ford’s plan.
“We don’t expect the average mile travelled to be executed by a fully autonomous vehicle within the next 30 years,” Jonas said.
“Of course we may be wrong,” Jonas said, but expectations for full autonomy may be over-hyped, not so much because of the technology, but other factors like legal and regulatory requirements, and behaviour.
Jonas said Ford’s announcement was low on detail with nothing about the investment required, volume, or engine type.
Ford sounded very positive.
“Ford is going to be mass-producing vehicles with full autonomy in 5 years. There’s going to be no steering wheel, there’s not going to be a gas pedal, there’s not going to be a brake pedal and of course a driver is not going to be required,” said CEO Mark Fields, at the launch event broadcast online.
Dream on, said Tom Simonite, in an article for the MIT Technology Review.
Simonite said Ford, UBER and BMW promise fully self-driving cars in 5 years, but warned that they will probably only work in very limited areas.
Hang on to your licence
“Don’t expect to toss out your driver’s licence in 2021. Five years isn’t long enough to create vehicles good enough at driving to roam extensively without human input, say researchers working on autonomous cars. They predict that Ford and others will meet their targets by creating small fleets of vehicles limited to small, controlled areas,” Simonite said.
Simonite quoted Steven Shladover of the University of California, Berkley, saying Ford will maybe have a low-speed taxi service on certain roads, but they won’t work if it rains. Other experts said the laser-based lidar sensors used in current prototypes don’t work well in snow or hail either.
“The hype has gotten totally out of sync with reality,” Shladover said, according to Simonite.
The main drawback is software.
“Computers can react to things much faster than a human, and self-driving cars’ sensors can look in many directions at once. But software is at a significant disadvantage when comes to interpreting what it “sees” to identify and understand objects and situations, such as a traffic cop gesturing in the road. Nor is software very good at planning how to deal with out-of-the-ordinary situations,” Simonite said.
Some analysts were much more bullish.
“The link-up of two industry leaders (Delphi, Mobileye) in self-driving cars, companies with whom nearly every automaker does business, suggests autonomous vehicle development will accelerate and put them on the roads in short order,” said Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs.
Kelley Blue Book analyst Akshay Anand said Delphi and Mobileye want automakers to use their technology not proprietary technology.
“This agreement should advance the cause for both, and a critical step will be getting past ‘dynamic’ autonomous steps such as snow, unclear lanes, roundabouts, construction and more. While they are ahead of the competition, they will need to be speedy, as the ‘race for autonomous’ continues to advance rapidly,” Anand said.
Investment researcher Evercore ISI quoted various industry gurus, from Sergey Brin in 2012, Elon Musk in 2014 and Google in 2015 saying self-driving cars will be available in 5 years.
“Hence, 5 years might be a realistic timeframe, the question remains is when those five years will start,” said Evercore ISI’s Arndt Ellinghorst.