What is holding back autonomous vehicles?

The idea that autonomous vehicles would be in relatively widespread use by 2020 wasn't so farfetched to people even at the turn of the century. Technology improves at an incredible rate and the idea of a baseline of the driver-assist features that are increasingly common in luxury vehicles was easy to foresee. But with so many AV stories in headlines in recent years, some may be wondering why they aren't more common or, indeed, popular.

Part of the problem is that this kind of autonomous driving software and hardware has been difficult to develop for any number of reasons, according to Auto Week. That includes the problems that come with conducting field tests in the real world – with real-life consequences. Even in relatively simple situations – such as smooth highway driving – it wasn't so long ago that at AV capabilities to give drivers a break seemed within reach. But even that relatively simple tech hasn't come to the fore in many vehicles.

Even as developers continue to add more miles to their testing data – both in the real world and virtually – it seems that the idea of fully autonomous vehicles is still many years down the line, the report said. So-called "Level 5 autonomy" may be the ultimate end goal, but the automotive industry as a whole is still grappling with nailing down safe, dependable Level 3 technology, even a few years after it seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough, due not only to current technological limitations, but also the state of infrastructure around the world, and how people behave behind the wheel. Simply put, one of the biggest issues the industry faces today is that drivers can identify and react to driving concerns well before current technology allows AVs to do the same.

Autonomous vehicles still have a long way to go.Autonomous vehicles still have a long way to go.

Further delays
Development may have also hit a speed bump in 2020 because a number of unforeseeable factors – such as the novel coronavirus pandemic, unrest in many countries around the world and so on – came to the fore and limited what developers could do, according to The New York Times. Some companies said they have been set back by as much as four months so far, and even as more cities and states open up once again, the things these companies may be able to do could still roll out to them relatively slowly.

Other issues, such as real-world accidents involving automated vehicles' AI failures, were already an impediment to broader testing – especially in leading to scepticism from policymakers – and the pandemic has been characterised as taking that "bear market" one step farther, the report said. That, of course, comes in addition to the growing understanding that the technology was, perhaps, not as far along as many optimists might have hoped.

Adjusting on the fly
In addition to difficulties on the technological side, other real-world issues have limited how developers have been able to conduct testing in 2020, according to MIT Technology Review. For that reason, much of the testing that would normally be done on real-world streets has now moved into the virtual space, with many benefits coming naturally.

Companies can create virtual testing scenarios that would be difficult or impossible to replicate on streets right now, or in general, and run those simulations a huge number of times, rather than perhaps just being able to do so on real pavement, the report said. While real-world testing is still a necessity, the fact that companies are making the most of the current opportunity did open up new avenues for many developers.

"This has the additional benefit of increasing the exposure of our operators to how the data they gather is used offline, [which] gives them better context into our overall development process and will help them be even better at their job as we get back on the road," AV software maker Aurora Innovation CEO Chris Urmson told MIT Technology Review.

Getting the public onboard
Even as companies still work to get their arms around development of proper and safe AV technology,  recent survey from Uber and Myplanet further highlight the issue, according to Fierce Electronics. Only about 1 in 7 Americans say they would be comfortable using AV technology today, and about the same number responded similarly when asked about future use.

Myplanet CEO Jason Cottrell told the site that the obvious challenge for the industry is to convince the average driver that the technology is something they can be comfortable with. Even if that's not how things work right now, the safety of AVs is likely to change dramatically in the next few years. Braking is certainly a part of vehicle safety, whether autonomous or not, and companies have an obligation to make sure the technology they use is up to par. 

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