Disclaimer: This piece is from the perspective of a former Waymo test driver. Biases towards the general industry may be present. I am also not a professional writer so there may be some digressions and grammatical errors in the piece, so please forgive me in advance. 🙂
With Waymo set to launch fully self-driving cars later this year and with other OEMs/startups trying to close the gap with the "leader," one question comes to mind: Are we really ready for L4 technology this year? The simple answer is no. The long answer as many of you know has many parts to cover (all of which I possibly can't write here), so let's dive in.
Earlier today Reuters released this article: https://reuters.com/article/us-autos-selfdriving/u-s-plans-to-rewrite-rules-that-impede-self-driving-cars-idUSKCN1ME1SP tl;dr: the federal government wants to revise regulations on fully autonomous cars, which is hilarious considering there weren't many major hurdles or regulations for L4 technology in the first place. The problem is that it's a bit too late to introduce these regulations even though they are much needed. They may have even saved the life of Elaine Herzberg, who tragically lost her life in what was a major oversight by tech and ridesharing giant, Uber, and in part to blame, the feds. The problem is that there was never any standardized form of regulations or oversight in the industry and this was done on purpose because the industry was still in its infantile stage. But with many companies now claiming to be on the verge of fully self-driving, why wait so late to enact new laws? The aforementioned article also highlights another subtle point regarding the use of vehicle controls in the car. If there are vehicle controls and the occupant has the option to take over then we have not achieved L4 technology. In fact, as we have seen with Tesla and other ADAS' the occupants are more distracted in these situations because they are complacent and believe L2/L3 technology is synonymous with L4 tech. But, for the sake of an argument, let's say that we had set guidelines established by the feds and that they were onboard with L4 tech without vehicle controls, etc. Would we be seeing self-driving cars any time soon?
Self-driving "experts" and "pundits" think they have everything figured out, but they haven't the faintest clue. Most people including CEOs, shareholders, the general public, the feds, engineers are being misled by tech companies and OEMs working on self-driving cars. You'll see interviews with the aforementioned people- the geniuses of the industry if you will, but how many media outlets and experts have talked to the actual test drivers vs. the company representatives and PR folk? As test drivers in the industry we have far more realistic knowledge about the topic, that is being purposely kept secret behind NDAs and other chokeholds so that multibillion dollar corporations can reap even more profit over the safety of the general public. Do I think SW/HW are the major issues? Depends on which company it is, but the fact is that most companies such as Waymo, Uber, etc are jumping far too ahead for consumers and regulators to keep up with. They want to create a world where self-driving cars can coexist with human drivers and sadly, that's just not possible at this time. There are still many hurdles to overcome including edge cases, Human-Vehicle communication/interaction, mimicking human driving, etc. The current infrastructure in the US cannot support this system; and many articles have also suggested that ride sharing companies like Uber are actually creating more traffic congestion. Oh, and let's not get into the hyperinflated stats about the disengagements- as Trump would say, that's definitely fake news. The variables are limitless, but nobody wants to talk about them.
I genuinely think self-driving cars will revolutionize the transportation industry. It will save lives, improve the QoL of disabled and non-disabled folk, and hopefully reduce traffic. Yes, there are other issues such as job loss but, everytime an innovative technology has arisen, humans have been put out of work and find other ways to adapt to the system. As a test driver and engineer who works on self-driving cars I feel that it's my responsibility to be fair, but also to be critical of the industry in which I work in.