Timelines presented by auto and tech companies have positioned 2018 and 2019 as milestones in the development of autonomous driving technology. But delays, reported development issues, and a fatal crash have raised questions about the near-term potential of self-driving vehicles.
Google spin-off Waymo and General Motors-backed Cruise are seen as the current leaders in the autonomous driving industry, as they have racked up more test miles than their competitors and plan to launch autonomous ride-hailing services by the end of 2019. Waymo‘s will debut in Phoenix in December, while Cruise has said its service will arrive at some point in 2019.
Both services will likely be limited to relatively small areas that have been subject to intensive mapping and testing, but media reports have described self-driving vehicles operated by each company that struggle with basic functions, casting doubt over how ready each company’s autonomous driving technology is for even limited commercial use. An August report from The Information said Waymo vehicles had difficulty making unprotected left turns, distinguishing between individuals in a large group, and merging into turn lanes and highway traffic, among other trouble areas, and an October report from Reuters said Cruise vehicles had trouble determining if objects on the road were moving or stationary.
Waymo told The Information it had implemented feedback it had received regarding its test vehicles and said safety is the company’s highest priority. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told Reuters the company prioritizes safety and would fix early development issues before launching an autonomous ride-hailing service.
“Waymo was founded on a mission to make our roads safer, and that’s why we built a cautious and defensive driver,” a Waymo representative told Business Insider. “As the only company with a fleet of fully self-driving cars on public roads, our vehicles are continually learning so we can safely expand our capabilities over time.”
Cruise did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Tesla and Uber have faced more visible setbacks. While Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the automaker will likely be able to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service by the end of 2019, pending regulatory approval, he also said in 2015 that Tesla would have fully-autonomous vehicle technology ready in about two years. The automaker has not yet said that its vehicles are capable of full autonomy. Tesla has also missed multiple deadlines set by Musk to send a self-driving vehicle across the US.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
Uber’s autonomous driving program has had the most tumultuous year of the four. In March, a self-driving Uber hit and killed a pedestrian, leading the company to suspend testing of its autonomous driving software. Uber once intended to include self-driving vehicles in its ride-hailing service in 2019, but backed off that goal after the accident. It has just recently asked for permission to resume testing vehicles with their autonomous software activated in Pennsylvania.
“Right now the entire team is focused on safely and responsibly returning to the road in self-driving mode,” an Uber representative said. “Our team remains committed to implementing key safety improvements, and we intend to resume on-the-road self-driving testing only when these improvements have been implemented and we have received authorization from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.”
Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst for Navigant, and Pete Kelly, a managing director at LMC Automotive, told Business Insider they have not been surprised by the autonomous driving industry’s setbacks.
“None of these vehicles are close to being ready for full deployment anywhere,” Abuelsamid said. “They all still have significant limitations on what they’re capable of doing.”
Abuelsamid and Kelly said the autonomous driving industry has done a poor job of communicating the progress of its technology in a realistic manner. Abuelsamid highlighted Tesla as the worst offender.
“I would put Tesla at the worst end of the scale in terms of managing expectations,” he said.
Musk has developed a reputation for setting aggressive goals and making bold proclamations about Tesla’s products. He told Recode in early November that Tesla was far ahead of its competitors in developing autonomous driving technology that can be used in all circumstances, and Tesla has since 2016 sold a hardware upgrade it says will give vehicles full self-driving capabilities when the necessary software is ready. The upgrade was removed from the automaker’s website in October, but Musk has said it would remain available to those who ask for it.
Abuelsamid said Tesla’s autonomous driving technology lags behind its competitors’.
“They have the least capable technology of any company,” he said.
Unlike many of its competitors, Tesla’s autonomous driving hardware includes only cameras and radar, forgoing the lidar sensors (which emit pulses of light that bounce off objects to determine where they’re located) that some companies and experts say are necessary for vehicles to drive without human assistance. A self-driving Tesla vehicle would be vulnerable to weather or road conditions that could cover its cameras or radar and render them ineffective, Abuelsamid said.
“The hardware that they have on the vehicles today will never, ever be Level-5 capable,” he said, referring to the designation for vehicles that can drive without human assistance under any conditions.
Abuelsamid also highlighted Uber for being too aggressive in promoting its self-driving technology. In 2016, the company offered rides in self-driving vehicles to some customers and members of the press.
“They gave the impression that they were a lot farther along than they really were,” Abuelsamid said.
Cruise has created questions around how it will deploy self-driving vehicles, Kelly said. GM president Dan Ammann said in November 2017 that self-driving Cruise vehicles would be introduced “in large scale, in the most complex environments” in 2019 if the development of company’s autonomous driving technology continued at its then-current pace. But neither GM nor Cruise has specified exactly what “in large scale” means, Kelly said.
Both Abuelsamid and Kelly said Waymo has been better than its rivals at managing expectations. While the company is ahead of its competition and has the right to boast, it has declined to do so, Kelly said.
“I get a sense that they’ve been far more sensible with their pronouncements, even at the same time as clearly being miles ahead of anybody else in terms of the amount of real-world and simulated testing that’s taking place.”
Waymo CEO John Krafcik said at the National Governors Association conference in July that the rollout of autonomous driving technology made by Waymo and its competitors would face obstacles and that fully autonomous vehicles were far from mass adoption.
“It’s not going to be an easy rollout,” he said. “There are going to be incidents in a Waymo service and other services from other players.”
The media has also set unrealistic expectations about autonomous driving technology, Kelly said, as some outlets have published bold claims made by some in the industry without challenging the basis for those claims.
But while they have made missteps, both the media and the autonomous driving industry have improved their messaging in the past year, Kelly and Abuelsamid said, though there’s still work to be done.
“I think the reality check is just starting,” Kelly said.
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