QNX Founder Gordon Bell shows an autonomous vehicle in the lab at BlackBerry QNX Headquarters in Ottawa on Friday, Feb 15, 2019. CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Five reasons why autonomous cars aren’t coming anytime soon

PITTSBURGH — In the world of autonomous vehicles, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Silicon Valley are bustling hubs of development and testing. But ask those involved in self-driving vehicles when we might actually see them carrying passengers in every city, and you’ll get an almost universal answer: Not anytime soon.

An optimistic assessment is 10 years. Many others say decades as researchers try to conquer a number of obstacles.

That makes Tesla’s declarations that it will offer fully autonomous vehicles by the second quarter of next year all the more striking. The company announced its ambitious plans during an investor conference on Monday. But skeptics doubt that Tesla can pull it off.

Here are the problems that researchers must overcome to start giving rides without humans behind the wheel:

———

SNOW AND WEATHER

When it’s heavy enough to cover the pavement, snow blocks the view of lane lines that vehicle cameras use to find their way. Researchers so far haven’t figured out a way around this. That’s why much of the testing is done in warm-weather climates such as Arizona and California.

Heavy snow, rain, fog and sandstorms can obstruct the view of cameras. Light beams sent out by laser sensors can bounce off snowflakes and think they are obstacles. Radar can see through the weather, but it doesn’t show the shape of an object needed for computers to figure out what it is.

“It’s like losing part of your vision,” says Raj Rajkumar, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Researchers are working on laser sensors that use a different light beam wavelength to see through snowflakes, said Greg McGuire, director of the MCity autonomous vehicle testing lab at the University of Michigan. Software also is being developed so vehicles can differentiate between real obstacles and snowflakes, rain, fog, and other conditions.

But many companies are still trying to master the difficult task of driving on a clear day with steady traction.

“Once we are able to have a system reliably perform in those, then we’ll start working toward expanding to those more challenging conditions,” said Noah Zych, Uber’s head of system safety for self-driving cars.

In some limited areas that have been mapped in three dimensions, the cars can function in light snow and rain.

———

PAVEMENT LINES AND CURBS

Across the globe, roadway marking lines are different, or they may not even exist. Lane lines aren’t standardized, so vehicles have to learn how to drive differently in each city. Sometimes there aren’t any curbs to help vehicles judge lane width.

For instance, in Pittsburgh’s industrial “Strip District,” where many self-driving vehicles are tested, the city draws lines across the narrow lanes to mark where vehicles should stop for stop signs. Sometimes the lines are so far back and buildings are so close to the street that autonomous cars can’t see traffic on the cross street if they stop at the line. One workaround is to program vehicles to stop for the line and creep forward.

“Is it better to do a double stop?” asked Pete Rander, president of Argo AI, an autonomous vehicle company in which Ford has invested heavily. “Since intersections vary, it’s not that easy.”

———

DEALING WITH HUMAN DRIVERS

For many years, autonomous vehicles will have to deal with humans who don’t always play by the rules. They double-park or walk in front of cars. Recently in Pittsburgh, an Argo backup driver had to take over when his car stopped during a right turn, blocking an intersection when it couldn’t immediately decide whether to go around a double-parked delivery truck.

“Even if the car might eventually figure something out, it’s shared space, and it’s socially unacceptable” to block traffic, Rander said.

Humans also make eye contact with other drivers to make sure they’re looking in the right direction, something still being developed for autonomous vehicles.

Add to that the antagonism that some feel toward robots. People have reportedly been harassing Waymo’s autonomous test vehicles near Phoenix. The Arizona Republic reported in December that police is suburban Chandler have documented at least 21 cases in the past two years, including a man waiving a gun at a Waymo van and people who slashed tires and threw rocks. One Jeep forced the vans off the road six times.

———

LEFT TURNS

Deciding when to turn left in front of oncoming traffic without a green arrow is one of the more difficult tasks for human drivers and one that causes many crashes. Autonomous vehicles have the same trouble.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in an interview last year that his company’s vehicles are still encountering occasional problems at intersections.

“I think the things that humans have challenges with, we’re challenged with as well,” he said. “So sometimes unprotected lefts are super challenging for a human, sometimes they’re super challenging for us.”

———

CONSUMER ACCEPTANCE

The fatal Uber crash near Phoenix last year did more than push the pause button on testing. It also rattled consumers who someday will be asked to ride in self-driving vehicles.

Surveys taken after the Uber crash showed that drivers are reluctant to give up control to a computer. One by AAA in March found 71 per cent of people are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles.

Autonomous vehicle companies are showing test passengers information on screens about where the vehicles are headed and what its sensors are seeing. The more people ride, the more they trust the vehicles, says Waymo’s Krafcik.

“After they become more and more confident they rarely look at the screens, and they’re on their phones or relaxing or sleeping,” he said.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Westerner Park asks City of Red Deer for financial help

Westerner Park says it needs city financial support

Pfizer posts 4Q loss, misses Street views, on lower revenue

Drugmaker Pfizer reported a $337 million loss in its fourth quarter after… Continue reading

UK to allow Huawei equipment in 5G networks but not in ‘core’ parts

LONDON — Britain decided Tuesday to give Huawei limited access to build… Continue reading

Birds flocking to national parks in the Canadian Rockies

BANFF, Alta. — It turns out tourists aren’t the only ones who… Continue reading

Country music fans enjoy free concert at Red Deer mall, ahead of ACMA awards

Fans like to get up close and personal and that’s exactly what… Continue reading

Your community calendar

Feb. 1 A Jump Rope Competition will be held at the Abbey… Continue reading

Virus in China affects sports events, Olympic qualifiers

GENEVA — Amid growing concern at the spread of a new virus… Continue reading

Ottawa 67’s boss Andre Tourigny gets call to coach Canada’s junior team

CALGARY — After serving as an assistant coach this year for Canada’s… Continue reading

Juno Awards nominees to be unveiled for music’s big night in Saskatoon

TORONTO — The 2020 Juno Awards nominees are set to be revealed… Continue reading

Harvey Weinstein NYC sex assault trial picks up pace

NEW YORK — The closely watched #Metoo era rape trial of Harvey… Continue reading

Calgary sport school that grooms Olympic champions threatened with shutdown

CALGARY — The National Sport School in Calgary that produces Olympic and… Continue reading

Quebec to seek consensus on offering medical aid in dying to mentally ill

MONTREAL — Quebec on Monday walked back a plan to offer medical… Continue reading

GOP defends Trump as Bolton book adds pressure for witnesses

WASHINGTON — Senators faced mounting pressure Monday to summon John Bolton to… Continue reading

Most Read