are engineers. An industry analyst who’s a former electronic controls engineer recently told me he doubts the industry’s ability to successfully make an SAE Level 4 car today. “At this stage, I’d be reluctant to ride in a vehicle that had no steering wheel or gas pedal,” he said. “At an absolute minimum, I want a kill switch that I can hit to shut it down.” He said this, despite his belief that automakers will reach Level 5 by the end of the next decade.
His comment is consistent with those of many engineering professionals, especially those who don’t have a stake in the autonomous car market. They understand the breadth and complexity of the engineering challenge, they envision all the potential failure modes in their mind’s eyes, and they’re skeptical. 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.
The point here isn’t that autonomous cars aren’t feasible. They are. Impressive new features are rolling out every year, which is why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has mandated automatic emergency braking by 2022. Automatic emergency braking works. It saves lives. But it should be noted that NHTSA hasn’t mandated total autonomy by 2022.
The problem is we’ve reached the point where the hype is galloping past the reality. And it’s partly because the word “autonomous” is losing its meaning. So for clarity’s sake, let’s recap: Today’s “autonomous” cars have drivers; the 2020 versions will operate in limited domains; and SAE Level 5 (real autonomy) is still a decade or more away.
Most important, though, is this: Autonomous cars, even those driven by governors, will never be foolproof.
Do you trust autonomous cars? Do you believe they will be successful at any point in the future? Let us know in the comment space below.
Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.