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A non-event for truly driverless cars – and a setback for public trust

Driverless firms are hesitating to apply for human-free driverless testing permits. (Photo: Fotolia)

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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Hello, automated driving community! An anticlimax for fully driverless cars, the whodunit questions about the Uber crash begin and what the Land of the Rising Sun can teach us: We bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

It was nothing less than a self-driving sensation: Four weeks ago, California announced it would give the go-ahead for driverless cars to operate on public roads without a driver inside. Last Monday, April 2, 2018, marked the historical release date of truly self-driving cars.

It’s safe to say, however, that the date was a bit of an anticlimax. Zero unmanned vehicles hit the road. And only one of the 50 companies currently testing driverless cars with a human backup driver applied for a human-free license, according to Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). She didn’t reveal the name of the applicant.

Under normal circumstances, driverless firms would have been desperate to get their hands on a test permit. However, the last few weeks have been an unusual time for the AD industry – with two recent tragedies playing a key role. First, the headline-dominating story about a woman who was killed after being hit by a self-driving Uber in Tempe, Arizona. Second, the self-driving Tesla Model X, which was involved in a fatal crash near Mountain View.

The events have sent shockwaves through the industry – tempering nascent societal acceptance of the new technology. It has mostly been companies’ approach to driver-free testing and lax regulations that have come under scrutiny – with experts voicing concerns about the readiness of sensor technology. Waymo, Lyft, Ford and Tesla now hesitating to get their applications in is a sign: a sign that the crashes’ fallout may have stalled driverless testing. Firms are taking a wait-and-see position, closely monitoring which way the public debate will swing.

Ideally, companies – in California, Arizona and beyond – will even learn from the setback and let their technologies mature further through safer testing methods. After all, it will only be by winning back the hearts and minds of an increasingly sensitized and skeptical public that they will make a mark in helping AD take off.

Uber’s crash: The whodunit is just getting started

As the dust slowly settles in the aftermath of the recent Uber crash, the question of liability is coming to the fore.

At first, it was reported that the victim’s family had reached a settlement with Uber. Now, it seems Uber will have to pay up again. According to Clean Technica, another group of relatives has hired legal counsel. “We are in the initial stages of investigation,” Phoenix attorney Patrick McGroder is quoted as saying. If only it was that easy.  

The whodunit after the Uber crash will be tricky to unravel. According to Reuters, the case presents an “unprecedented liability challenge”, as self-driving cars involve a complex web of potentially responsible parties. Uber as the car owner. Volvo as the manufacturer (deemed innocent). Aptiv, who supplied the sensors and claims that Uber rigged them, impeding the car’s self-drive capabilities. Lax Arizona laws. An unlucky backup driver. How can we determine what led to the crash? Where’s the black box?

According to U.S. attorney Andrew Garza, only sensor data can truly inform liability decisions. “It will resolve most liability issues,” he predicted in an interview with 2025AD. “Data is the best evidence we can have – and reviewing it will be a game-changer.”

Whatever the outcome of the investigations, it doesn’t look good for Uber. Its largely self-righteous way of putting immature tech on public roads is turning into a money sink. Unless they find a way to win the finger-pointing contest.

Strength lies in calmness

In Japanese, “Sensei” is used as a title to address somebody who has reached a certain level of expertise in an art or a skill. It means master, teacher, role model.

While the past weeks’ headlines mostly revolved around rather hotheaded U.S. AD firms, a Forbes analysis shows how their Japanese counterparts have maintained a low profile in pioneering autonomous mobility. One might assume a lack of public attention is a sign of insufficiency. But that’s certainly not the case.

Like a traditional Sensei, Japan is setting a strong example when it comes to AD: Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota have all been making significant process – quietly steering the change. Their introversion is rather an indicator of a self-confident go-to-market focus than a lack of innovation. The country is sticking to its vision to pioneer fully driverless cars for the 2020 Olympics. There is little doubt that it will meet expectations.

Why the different mindset? While U.S. firms are geared towards a young, tech-savvy and venturesome clientele, Japan’s aging population and a strong public transit sector mean local players are emphasizing technological safety. I would even argue that it’s a cultural thing: U.S. companies are known to be much more sales-driven than Japanese players, who come from a traditionally more introverted culture. Anyone who has ever been in touch with Japanese quality requirements knows that they outclass any other.

Interestingly, reliability is just what will make AD thrive: It enhances consumer acceptance far more than marketing promises ever could. Ironically, that strategy could also lead to an earlier widespread availability. Many a driverless firm around the world may cast its view to the Land of the Rising Sun: They might learn from it.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

Stephan Giesler


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