Do You Trust Autonomous Cars?

Op Ed: We might be reaching the point where the hype is surpassing the reality.

The recent comment about autonomous cars by Governor Jay Inslee of Washington might just be a slip of the tongue, or it might be an indicator of how confused the American public has become about self-driving vehicles.

Inslee, after signing an executive order allowing automakers to begin testing autonomous cars on his state’s roads, unwisely used the term “foolproof” to describe the technology.

“One thing I know about radar, it doesn’t drive drunk, it doesn’t drive distracted,” Inslee was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times . “We humans are really good at a lot of things, driving cars isn’t necessarily one of them compared to the automated processes that are digital and foolproof.”

Internet publications were quick to pounce on the comment. CNet dutifully noted that the technology was “still far from perfect.” UK’s Register wrote, “We must have missed the bit where code bugs were extinct.” And Jalopnik published a blunt headline advising the Governor to, “Stop Saying Dumb S---.”

But Inslee’s comment probably serves as a good measure of a growing public belief in autonomous cars. We often hear that autonomous cars are already tooling around our roads. We also hear that automakers plan to produce self-driving cars, some with no steering wheels or pedals, by 2020 or 2021. The public hears this because it’s virtually impossible to traverse one daily news cycle without it.


In December, GM CEO Mary Barra announced that GM would begin testing self-driving Chevy Bolts on public roads in Michigan. (Source: General Motors Co.)


Too often, though, we don’t hear that today’s “self-driving” cars are monitored by drivers with their hands positioned inches from the steering wheel. And we seldom hear that the 2020 cars will operate in limited domains – prescribed areas with favorable weather conditions. In other words, no snow, no ice, no heavy rain. Mostly, though, we don’t hear about the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) automated driving levels . And we don’t hear that Level 5 – full automation – is likely still a decade or more away.

In the way that news gets disseminated, there’s little room for such qualifiers. By the time information is compressed, filtered, tweaked and re-packaged, it ends up being a sentence or two on a radio or television broadcast. And that tidbit leaves the impression that in five years we’ll all be sleeping in the back seat of our self-driving cars as we commute to work every morning.

None of this hurts the auto industry, of course. If we’ve learned anything from Tesla’s position as the most valuable US automaker, it’s that hope pays. Tesla lost $889 million in 2015, lost another $675 million in 2016, and posted a fraction of Ford’s and GM’s sales over the last few years, yet its stock price places it at the top of the US auto industry in total valuation. That’s a lesson not lost on the GMs and Fords of the world. It’s all about the future.

To be sure, many Americans are still skeptical about autonomous driving. And many of those non-believers


Remove the proof from foolproof and who do you have? Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

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