Experts admit that the challenge for autonomous vehicles is greater than expected as Uber parks its robotaxis plans.
By 2021, in recent years, numerous Silicon Valley luminaries, ride-hailing politicians and leading cab firms have said that self-driving vehicles will cross the U.S. for a long time, rolling along the highways of Britain and delivering robotic taxis in London.
However, Jan. 1 has not brought a driverless revolution.
In reality, in the final weeks of 2020, Uber, one of the biggest players and suspected recipients, agreed to park its plans for self-driving cabs, selling its autonomous division to Aurora in an arrangement worth around $4 billion (£3 billion) – around half of what it was worth in 2019.
The decision does not mean that the company no longer believes in self-driving cars, the Uber CEO reiterated. With secure, affordable and environmentally sustainable transportation, few technologies hold as much promise to improve people’s lives,”Few technologies hold as much promise for improving people’s lives with safe, accessible and environmentally friendly transportation,”
But more people, with a pinch of salt, will take the pledge now.
A transport consultant who has led self-driving car experiments in the UK, Prof. Nick Reed, says, “The outlook has changed since 2015, when the hype probably peaked.”
The problems and complexities are becoming clearer and clearer.
Automated driving, Reed says, could still take place in the next five years on highways with clearly defined lanes, restricted to motorized cars all heading in the same direction. Widespread usage is still a way off in cities, he says: “But the benefits are still there.”
Health is the most popular advantage, as more than 90% of traffic accidents are blamed for human error. Proponents also suggest that automated vehicles would be more efficient and congestion would be minimized.
Looking back, Reed notes, “Technology has worked… people have brains, they’re doing the right thing most of the time, we’re 90% of the way there.”
But the most difficult is the last piece.
Each time, if it’s raining, snowing or foggy, being able to do the right thing consistently is more difficult than anticipated.
Waymo, the Google offshoot that led the field, may be an example: Subsequent measures seem small after quickly wowing the world with videos of self-driving cars.
It declared last October that the public could hail fully driverless cabs; but only a fraction of the rides will not have a safety driver in the vehicle – and the range remains restricted to the sunny suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, with Waymo computers mapping every inch of it.
Robotic taxis have stalled elsewhere.
Like Uber, Addison Lee cab company had ambitious plans and signed an agreement with British autonomy pioneer Oxbotica in 2018 to bring robotaxis to London by 2021.
The deal was quietly dropped under new ownership last March.
“Driverless cars are best left to OEMs [manufacturers]and they’re not part of our current plans.” Addison Lee CEO Liam Griffin said.
Because of the pandemic, Ford’s introduction of an autonomous cab service has also been delayed by at least a year to 2022.
“Globally, Covid-19 has delayed the testing and launch of connected and automated vehicles,” says Mike Hawes, executive director of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
Developments such as the ALKS automatic lane-keeping system may also be made possible by regulatory changes to be implemented in daily cars in 2021.
“ALKS is the first version of automated driving technology that could prevent about 47,000 serious accidents over the next decade while creating up to 420,000 new jobs,” said Hawes.
Later this year, the device will allow cars to take charge of British highways – although insurers are trying to speak to the government about launching it.
Alexandra Smyth, head of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Autonomous Systems Department, said, “There has been a lot of progress and interesting developments in regulations and codes of conduct – all important components that accompany the technology itself.”
But realistically, there’ll always be bugs and stuff that don’t work the way we thought they would. One of the main obstacles would be public trust.
After Uber’s self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018, concerns were stoked.
And despite the lingeringly cool