You don’t have to look very hard to find stories about self-driving cars and their expected impact on our daily lives. People are fascinated about unmanned technology and how it will affect everything from our shopping habits to who has to carry car insurance when we’re all riding around in autonomous vehicles.
But there are those in the unmanned and autonomous industry who feel that the reality of daily life with driverless vehicles is quite a bit further down the road, if you will. And that more urgent discussions need to be held about what people really want from this autonomous technology.
During an interview with IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman, Dr. Gill Pratt, current head of the Toyota Research Institute and former DARPA program manager and founder of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, attempted to provide a reality check regarding the progress being made toward Level 5 Autonomy for driverless vehicles. Dr. Pratt bluntly stated that true Level 5 Autonomy is not around the corner – or even just down the street.
Dr. Pratt, who runs Toyota’s billion dollar plus robotics and artificial intelligence efforts, notes that Level 5 Autonomy (defined as when a vehicle is completely autonomous in any weather or road conditions; stated more simply, the car can drive itself anywhere, anytime, without any human intervention) “is a wonderful goal, but none of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 Autonomy.”
To Dr. Pratt’s point, not all driven miles are the same. In driverless vehicle terms, miles that are driven in clear weather on heavily mapped roads are obviously not equal, to the challenges of driving in rain, snow, or fog on poorly marked roads in heavy traffic. While he questioned whether even Level 4 Autonomy has truly been reached, he also discussed the decisions that society, not industry, needs to make about driverless systems, including how good does the system have to be to be implemented. How much better than human driving do driverless systems have to be? Ten percent better than human driving? Ten times better than human driving?
“It’s the government and everybody else’s role who will be affected by this to weigh in and say, ‘Well, maybe it’s good enough to save one life.’ Or should we actually say, ‘We’re not going to use it until it’s 10 times better.’” – Dr. Gill Pratt
Dr. Pratt points out that technologists need to understand what society wants in its driverless future, so they avoid introducing technology that doesn’t align with society’s expectations. And as mistakes in the technology happen during development and testing, how tolerant will society be? After all, everyone knows that humans make mistakes – hey, we’re only human, right? But what about that driverless vehicle? How much perfection are we going to expect of our machines…and how much room for error will we allow?
In reading Dr. Pratt’s interview, a person desperately looking forward to a future of driverless vehicles might feel a sense of disappointment or frustration. Well, as a famous hitchhiker’s guide once advised, “Don’t Panic.”
The Rise of the Self-Driving Vehicles
Driverless vehicles of all sizes and types are on their way – it’s just the driverless revolution is going to be more of an evolution with small steps leading to greater and greater autonomy over the next couple of decades. Think of it as following a slower, more demanding technology path than that blazed by smartphones – which went from being simple communication devices to hand-held computers capable of handling virtually all digital tasks from email to online ordering and summoning a ride.
Our autonomous future will likely begin with a series of steps starting with driverless ride-sharing and autonomous buses, passenger vans, trucks and taxis. Many of these systems are already in testing in Europe and in several U.S. cities. So, take heart and plan on your driverless future starting with a taxi ride.
As a manufacturer of critical components used in autonomous applications such as self-driving vehicles, autonomous and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as autonomous subsea vehicles, KVH has been in the forefront of the efforts to achieve true autonomy in a vehicle since the earliest attempts to race teams of driverless vehicles across 175 miles of desert in ten hours or less. The 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge was considered the ultimate challenge in robotics engineering a decade ago, and KVH’s DSP-3000 fiber optic gyros provided stabilization and pointing for a payload on the Carnegie Mellon entry in that competition. Because of this history, KVH understands very well just how long the path to achieving true vehicle autonomy is, and continues to work with the leaders in the development of self-driving car technology. We believe that true autonomy will come, slowly and incrementally, and we will be there helping to make it happen.
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