Drat. It seemed I had been proven wrong yet again. Just two months after having written that “The Self-Driving Car is Only an Oxymoron” and would never be a reality, I was confronted last week by headlines screaming a variant of : “Self-Driving Cars Will Roam New York City Streets Next Year.” The headlines were everywhere, from the New York Times to NPR, and the import was clear — driverless (or autonomous, or self-driving) cars are here, and ready to go on the streets of New York. (And if they can make it there….)
So I was on my way back to my hut in the Slough of Despond, there to lick my wounds a while, when I said to myself, “Wait a minute, perhaps we should read a bit beyond the headline and the first paragraph.” And what I found there made me smile again, briefly.
All the stories were about an announcement from the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that a subsidiary of General Motors had applied to begin the first tests in the state of a “fully autonomous vehicle.” Curiously, every story that I have seen said that GM got the contract to do the testing, when all the governor’s announcement said was that they had applied for the contract. But that is far from the only abject failure of “journalism” with respect to this story:
- The driverless cars will not be driverless. There will be not only a qualified engineer seated at all times on the driver’s seat, performing on demand the functions of a driver, but in addition there will be a person in the passenger’s seat, performing, as required, the functions of a passenger. This was clearly laid out in the governor’s release.
- The autonomous cars will not be autonomous. The governor referred to them as “fully autonomous” cars, but they are not. In the industry, there are four levels of autonomy, and only Level Five cars, which can go anywhere in any weather at any time without human intervention, are properly called fully autonomous. No such car has yet been built, and there is no timetable for when one might be built. What has been achieved is Level Four, a car that can automatically perform certain prescribed tasks within a prescribed area.
- The cars will not “roam New York City streets” at will. As the governor’s statement pointed out but few stories mentioned, the tests will take place within a “geofenced area” of about five square miles, the mapping of which, says the governor, “has begun.” Wait, what? There are no existing maps of Manhattan, including Google Maps, that the cars can use? That’s going to be a problem for the rest of the country, right?
- The tests will not exactly be “real world.” In addition to the driver hovering over the driverless controls, and the passenger hovering over the driver, each individual car in the test will be escorted by a New York State Police cruiser, and will be under the umbrella of a five million dollar insurance policy. Other than that, though, it’s just another Monday in Manhattan.
- Despite all this, driverless cars are a great investment. Consider. A few months before being “selected” by the governor to get the first contract to test autonomous cars in New York, GM gave $17,500 to Cuomo’s reelection campaign. As word spread of GM’s victory in the struggle to dominate a non-existent industry, General Motors stock went up 25%. You just don’t see that kind of return on investment much anymore. Not since Bernie Madoff, anyway.
So now that we know how that works, let us repair once again to the Slough of Despond, there to contemplate our technological future.