Consumers Are Right About Autonomous Cars

Op-ed: Recent reports about resignations of Tesla engineers suggest that automakers need to approach autonomous technology cautiously.
September 15, 2017

It would be easy to look at the results of Gartner Inc.'s recent survey about consumer attitudes toward autonomous cars, and conclude that the respondents are a quaint, technically-unsophisticated bunch. The truth, however, might be a little more complex than that.

The survey in question, published last week, revealed that 55% of those polled in the U.S. and Germany would not even consider riding in a fully autonomous vehicle. The results might seem unbelievable to self-described techies, but they’re supported by a similar report from the American Automobile Association (AAA) earlier this year, which concluded that three-quarters of US drivers would feel afraid to ride in a self-driving car.

If you’re tempted to dismiss those fears as unfounded, however, consider a recent story in The Wall Street Journal . Titled, "Tesla's Push to Build Self-Driving Cars Sparked Dissent Among Its Engineers," it describes a situation in which team members clashed with management over deadlines and marketing decisions, ultimately prompting resignations of 10 engineers and four top managers. In a memo, one engineer wrote that the development of Tesla’s Autopilot feature was based on “reckless decision making that has potentially put customer lives at risk.” As we wrote last year, disagreements over such matters also caused one supplier, MobilEye N.V. , to end its partnership with Tesla.


A story in The Wall Street Journal describes a situation in which team members clashed with management over autonomous cars, ultimately prompting resignations of 10 engineers and four top managers. (Source: Tesla, Inc.)


The courage displayed by those engineers, and by the dissenting supplier, suggests that there are still deep disagreements over the safety of self-driving vehicles. And the disagreements go beyond Tesla, to the auto industry at large. The problem is that many engineers can still envision the failure modes in their mind’s eyes, and they’re concerned. As we’ve written previously, they’re like waiters who won’t eat in a restaurant – they’ve seen what goes on in the kitchen, and they’re having no part of it.

Yet we continue to be barraged by images of self-driving cars on roads around the country. Never mind that those autonomous vehicles are attended by drivers with their hands inches from the steering wheels. Never mind that they operate in limited domains. The images tell us something else. And the words support those concepts. Many automakers are predicting they will roll out cars having no steering wheels or gas pedals in the early 2020s.

Unfortunately, that’s misleading. Although advanced automated driving features will be available by that time, real SAE Level 5 commercial vehicles – the kind the public envisions – won’t be on sale at your local dealership by then.

Industry experts say that the oft-repeated claim that autonomous technology is “99% ready” is also misleading. Ninety-nine percent, they say, is a long way from 100%. “Would you get on a plane that’s 99% reliable?” asked David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research , during a discussion with Design News. “Most people would say, ‘Not a chance.’”

Still, it’s going to be tough

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