Truly self-driving cars may be impossible without helpful human touch

By Nick Carey and Paul Lienert

MILTON KEYNES, England (Reuters) – Autonomous vehicle (AV) startups have raised tens of billions of dollars on promises to develop truly self-driving cars, but industry executives and experts say they may need permanent remote human supervisors to help drivers robot suffering.

The central premise of autonomous vehicles—that computers and artificial intelligence will dramatically reduce accidents caused by human error—has driven much of the research and investment.

But there’s a catch: Building robot cars that can drive safer than humans is extremely difficult because self-driving software systems simply don’t have the ability of humans to predict and quickly assess danger, especially when faced with unexpected incidents. or “excessive cases”.

“So my question would be ‘Why?’ said Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise, a unit of General Motors, when asked if he could see a point where remote human supervisors would have to be phased out of business.

“I can give my customers peace of mind knowing there is always a person there to help if needed,” Vogt said. “I don’t know why I would ever want to get rid of it.”

This is the first time Cruise has recognized the long-term need for remote controls.

Alphabet Inc’s Waymo and Argo, which is backed by Ford Motor Co and Volkswagen AG, declined to comment when asked the same question.

GM recalled and updated the software in 80 autonomous Cruise vehicles this month after a June crash in San Francisco left two people injured. US safety regulators said the recalled software could “mispredict” the path of an oncoming vehicle, and Cruz said the unusual scenario would not happen again after the update.

For some, the idea that human supervisors could be here to stay raises more doubts about the technology.

Truly autonomous vehicles are far behind the optimistic launch timetables predicted just a few years ago.

In 2018, GM sought U.S. government approval for a fully autonomous car with no steering wheel, brakes, or gas pedals that would enter its commercial car-sharing fleet in 2019. That vehicle, the Cruise Origin, is now not going to start production by spring 2023, Vogt said.

In 2019, Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk promised a million robot taxis “next year for sure” – although his company’s “Full Self Driving” offering has been criticized because its cars cannot drive themselves without a human behind the wheel and ready manual control in case of emergency.

In a June interview on YouTube, Musk said that developing self-driving cars was “much more difficult than I originally thought, by far.” But when asked for a timeline, he said Tesla could get it done “this year.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The unfulfilled promise of true autonomy has raised the stakes for the AV industry.

“If these companies don’t succeed in the next two years, they won’t be around anymore,” said Mike Wagner, CEO of Edge Case Research, which helps AV companies assess, manage and insure risk. “It’s a case of put up or shut up at this point.”

WATCHING PEOPLE from a distance

Many AV startups today use humans as remote supervisors, along with safety drivers sitting behind the wheel.

These remote humans are an added cost, but they help self-driving cars handle extreme cases. These could include something as basic as an unknown set of lane closures during road construction or erratic, unpredictable behavior by pedestrians or human drivers.

When a robot driver encounters a case, “it throws up its hands and says, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,'” said Koosha Kaveh, CEO of Imperium Drive, which uses humans as remote controls for cars in the English city of Milton Keynes. over time, these people will act as “air traffic controllers,” overseeing a growing number of autonomous cars.

Cruise’s Vogt says the company’s AVs on the streets in San Francisco currently rely on humans less than 1% of the time. But in hundreds, thousands, or even millions of AVs, that would add up to a significant amount of time stopped on the road waiting for human guidance.

Imperium Drive’s Kaveh said that as more self-driving cars — which are more predictable than humans — hit the roads, the number of edge cases will decrease, “but you’ll never get to zero cases.”

“Even decades from now you won’t get to 100% truly autonomous vehicles,” Kaveh added.

However, competition is growing. Some Chinese cities are pushing to allow active AV testing more quickly.

The need to address edge cases and reduce the cost of everything from sensors to the number of people in the market has also intensified as investor funding for self-driving cars has plummeted.

Doubt has crept in as investors worry about how soon standalone businesses will become profitable. Simpler or slower AVs like trucks or last-mile delivery services operating on highways or low-speed routes are likely to reach profitability first, but it will still take years to get there.

Overall investment in future mobility startups has slowed, with AV-focused companies particularly hard hit, accounting for less than 10% of venture capital in the second quarter, according to investor website PitchBook. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/3Rzy04y)

Mobility technology funding drops in 2022 https://graphics.reuters.com/AUTOS-AUTONOMOUS/TECHNOLOGY/egvbkradkpq/chart.png

Investments in AV startups in the quarter fell to $958 million. Just two years ago, AV investments were booming, with Alphabet’s Waymo raising $3 billion, Didi’s AV unit raising $500 million and Amazon.com Inc acquiring AV startup Zoox for $1.3 billion. according to PitchBook.

“HURRY TO SHOP”

Autonomous systems are not as capable as humans because “their perception and prediction algorithms are not as good as how the human brain processes and decides,” said Chris Borroni-Bird, an independent consultant who previously led advanced vehicle programs at the GM and Waymo.

For example, a human seeing a ball rolling down the road — harmless in itself — would assume a child could follow it and hit the brakes much faster than an AV, Borroni-Bird said.

“I worry that AV companies will rush to market without proving that safety is better than human-driven vehicles,” he added.

The problem is that there are “tens of billions of potential edge cases” that AVs could encounter, said James Routh, CEO of AB Dynamics, which tests and runs simulations on cars, including advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). which is a foundation of autonomous driving features.

Automotive startup Wejo Group Ltd receives 18 billion data points daily from millions of connected cars and helps with simulations for AVs, said Sarah Larner, executive vice president of strategy and innovation.

“But there are so many variables like the weather, you can get a peak and then have to layer in all the different variations,” he said. “It’s really millions of results.”

DELIVERY STILL DRIVER

In track testing for cars, AB Dynamics is using a robot arm that it plans to retrofit to slow-moving mining trucks and agricultural vehicles to make them largely autonomous.

Routh envisions a remote team of humans overseeing fleets of, for example, autonomous mining trucks operating in closed environments.

He doesn’t see this scenario working for vehicles in faster, more open environments because it could be difficult for remote human supervisors to react quickly enough to hazards.

Over the next 12 months, British e-food delivery and technology company Ocado Group Plc will deploy a small fleet of driverless delivery vehicles with self-driving software startup Oxbotica – supported by remote human supervisors – that will operate on just a few roads in designated routes in a small UK town and never drive at speeds above 30 miles (48 km) per hour.

“At 30mph, if a vehicle panics, it can hit the emergency brake and call for help,” said Ocado’s head of advanced technology, Alex Harvey. “This seems like a very viable strategy at low speed.”

“But you can’t play that game on a freeway,” Harvey added, because hard stops in extreme cases would be a safety hazard.

Harvey said it would take about five years for Ocado to develop a profitable driverless delivery system. More than half of Ocado’s UK customers could be reached by AVs driving no more than 40mph, he said. Eventually, the service could be extended to Ocado customers such as US retailer Kroger Co.

(Reporting by Nick Carey in Milton Keynes, England, and Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)

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