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Corpus of news articles
Transport > Self-driving / driverless cars,
autonomous driving / vehicles
The Fully Self-Driving Car
Is Still Years Away
JULY 1, 2016
The New York Times
By NEAL E. BOUDETTE
and JOHN MARKOFF
Even as automakers and technology companies have been promoting a
euphoric vision of the future in which cars will drive themselves and serious
crashes will be rare, their engineers have been engaged in a sobering debate.
Just how autonomous can and should cars become? the engineers are asking. Is
there an inherent danger in technology that invites human drivers to sit back
and relax — but still requires them to be ready to hit the brakes or grab the
wheel at the first sign of trouble?
Those questions have taken on a new urgency after the revelation this week that
the driver of a Tesla Model S died in a crash in Florida while the electric car
was operating in its Autopilot mode.
The man, Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was driving on a divided highway,
when a tractor-trailer truck made a left turn and crossed in front of Mr.
Brown’s lane of traffic. Tesla said neither Mr. Brown nor the car’s self-driving
system noticed the white truck against a bright sky, and the brakes were never
For now, other automakers are giving no sign of slowing down their efforts to
push forward with cars that can drive themselves. But mainly they say the
technology isn’t ready yet — which for many is an implicit rebuke of Tesla’s
willingness to tempt tech-minded drivers to turn tomorrow’s vision into today’s
On Friday, even as the world was absorbing news of Mr. Brown’s death as the
first known fatality of the autonomous driving revolution, the German automaker
BMW said it intended to offer a “self-driving car” — but not until 2021. And it
will have much different technology than is now available on the Tesla Model S.
“Today we are standing at the brink of a new revolution,” Harald Krüger, BMW
chief executive, said at a news conference in Munich.
Mr. Krüger added that the Tesla crash was “really very sad” and said BMW would
need “the next few years” to perfect its autonomous driving system. “Today the
technologies are not ready for serious production,” he said.
The world’s largest carmaker, Toyota, is a notable holdout in the rush toward
completely autonomous cars. Last year, the company said that it would invest $1
billion in a Silicon Valley-based research effort to focus on cars that will
function as “guardian angels,” saving human drivers from errors, rather than
Tesla, which started its Autopilot feature last fall, has emphasized in
discussing Mr. Brown’s death that the system isn’t intended to take over
complete control of the car and that drivers must keep their hands on the
steering wheel and remain alert and engaged.
The point highlights the difference in approach that separates companies working
on self-driving technology.
Ford Motor, Google, Volvo and others are aiming at offering fully autonomous
cars that can operate safely without human intervention at all — an approach
engineers call Level 4 automated driving. Those companies are wary of
semiautonomous, or Level 3, technology that can drive the car for stretches of
road under certain circumstances, but requires drivers to be ready to take over.
Tesla’s Autopilot is not even a fully fledged Level 3 technology, and some
experts say it is a risky approach.
“There’s a huge inherent danger and it’s well proven — the computer making a
mistake and the driver not taking over quickly enough,” said Mark Wakefield, a
managing director at Alix Partners, a consulting firm with a large automotive
The trouble is that while semiautonomous systems like Tesla’s are guiding a car,
human drivers can be lulled into feeling they are able to turn their attention
away from the road. Mr. Brown, like some other Model S owners, posted videos
showing the driver with no hands on the steering wheel. In one video, a driver
climbs into the back seat.
Pete Cordaro, the owner of a vending machine company from Connellsville, Pa.,
owns a 2013 Model S that does not have Autopilot. But he drove a loaner with the
feature earlier this year while his was being repaired. He loves his car and has
deposits to buy two Model 3 compacts when that car is available, yet he is “on
the fence” about getting Autopilot.
While the technology “was the greatest thing” on closed highways like the
Pennsylvania Turnpike, it could become confused in more complicated environments
like construction zones, Mr. Cordaro said.
“My experience is it’s really not completely safe except in limited-access
highways,” he said. “It gives you a false sense of security. You get comfortable
and think you can take your hands off the wheel but you really can’t. It should
be called Auto-assist, instead of Autopilot, because that’s all it is.”
Even Amnon Shashua, an executive whose technology is part of Tesla’s
self-driving feature, said on Friday that he did not think self-driving’s time
had yet come.
Mr. Shashua is co-founder and chairman of Mobileye, an Israeli company that
makes camera and sensing technology. According to the Tesla website, Tesla uses
Mobileye components but developed the self-driving system in the Model S itself.
Mobileye, along with the chip maker Intel, is at work in a partnership with BMW
on the self-driving car that the German automaker described in Munich on Friday
that is supposed to be available in 2021.
Mr. Shashua suggested that self-driving technology was close, but still not
quite ready for actual use without human drivers remaining engaged.
“Five years is a very short time,” Mr. Shashua said. “On the other hand, it is a
sufficient time to do the types of validations that are needed.”
The BMW car Mobileye is collaborating on will be capable of piloting itself on
highways, but not necessarily in complex urban settings.
Automakers and technology companies still need to do “hundreds of thousands or
millions of kilometers of validation and simulations” in closed testing
environments to be certain the technology is safe, Mr. Shashua said.
“I think it is very important, especially given this accident and what we hear
in the news, that companies are very transparent about the limitations of the
system,” he said.
Although Tesla has publicly said that it has enhanced the Mobileye technology,
the company has not commented on whether it has enhanced the system to protect
against what the industry describes as “lateral turn across path”— the type of
situation in the Florida accident.
Others in the automotive industry are working on sensor technologies meant to
detect vehicles from all angles.
One approach is lidar — a system that uses rotating laser beams. Lidar is being
used in the experimental autonomous vehicle being developed by BMW, as well as
those by Google, Nissan and Apple. But it remains unclear whether the laser
system will come down enough in price to use in mass-market cars.
Jack Ewing contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on July 2, 2016, on page B1 of the
New York edition with the headline: Technology Surges, but Human Behavior Is
Being Tested, Too.
The Fully Self-Driving Car Is Still Years Away,
July 1, 2016,
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