The Robotaxi Myth

I started following the Waymo situation a few weeks ago, when Ars Technica asked “why hasn’t Waymo expanded its driverless taxi service?” My glib reply on Twitter was that ride hailing is not a good use case.  Since then, we have learned that the recently-departed executive team had not been moving fast enough to satisfy their investors.  First to go was the Chief Safety Officer – not a good sign.

Indeed, the robotaxi is the absolute worst use case, according to this very thorough analysis by Tim Lee.  Lee’s recommendation is to put autonomous cars on the road, now, doing something they can actually do, and proceed from there.

Lyft has just bailed out, as Uber did last year.  The New Republic calls self-driving cars “a series of very expensive and glitzy pilot projects” which, while unkind, is pretty accurate.  Level 5 automation will be in the pilot stage for a long time.  We (and Alphabet) should temper our expectations.

Good use cases for self-driving exist in SAE level 4, constrained conditions – like airport shuttles, food delivery, and taxi services in closed communities.  Shuttle services like this are popping up all around the country. 

A zero-to 25-mph self-driving car—we believe that problem is very, very solvable.

This quote from Voyage founder Oliver Cameron sums it up – and vindicates Waymo’s decision to hunker down in Chandler, Arizona.  I agree with Lee that the winners will be those companies that are able to commercialize level 4.

Who asked for self-driving cars, anyway?  Certainly not consumers.  This study from MIT, Consumers Don’t Really Want Self-Driving Cars, and this more recent one from AAA found the same result.  Nearly half of respondents said they would never purchase a car that completely drives itself. 

They’re looking for driver assistance systems that work to help them stay in active and safe control of the vehicle.

What do they want?  You guessed it: automatic emergency braking, lane keeping, and blind spot warning.  These features come under the heading of SAE level 2, also known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). 

Several people have come to grief from thinking that their level 2 vehicles were “full self-driving.”  Ironically, the better the system, the greater the false sense of security, says AAA’s Greg Brannon.  This is a shame because the robotaxi myth prevents us from properly appreciating level 2. 

List of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)

  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Anti-lock Braking System
  • Automatic Emergency Braking
  • Blind Spot Detection
  • Dynamic Brake Support        
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Forward Collision Warning
  • Lane Departure Warning      
  • Lane Keeping Support
  • Parking Assist           
  • Rear Cross Traffic Alert
  • Rear Visibility System

Proponents say that replacing human drivers will save lives, but ADAS is already doing that. It’s also, as I wrote here, adding value to new vehicles.  I suspect that, just as the technology must work its way up from level 2, so must we drivers.  As we become more accustomed to ADAS features, we will be better prepared to supervise semi-autonomous (level 3) vehicles.

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