We Were Promised Self-Driving Cars. Where Are They?

Why Elon Musk's promise of a self-driving future is running late.
September 20, 2021, 7:42pm

Your car was supposed to be driving you around by now. But our miraculous self-driving future is running late.

Just a few years ago, experts predicted American streets would soon be filled with autonomous vehicles. Headlines told us to expect 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020, and that “from 2020 you will become a permanent backseat driver.”

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Instead, we’re still waiting. Mounting technical problems proved more difficult than designers expected, including the challenge of teaching cars to interpret the gazillion different types of everyday objects and data that real life presents, from passing birds to a moon that looks like a yellow traffic light to hand gestures from other drivers. 

Vehicles that appear to be highly autonomous are still operating with a lot of caveats and limitations in place. Some researchers are now saying the fully self-driving vehicles we were once so confidently promised may be decades away

Perhaps the highest-profile player in the field, Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc., has been beset by delays and questions about its safety record—despite Musk’s big talk and the company’s ambitious plans. 

On Sunday, the head of a national crash regulator warned that Tesla’s imminent plan to release what it calls “Full Self-Driving” beta software to its nationwide fleet may be premature, and slammed the company’s use of the term “Full Self-Driving” as “misleading and irresponsible.”

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The upgrade is supposed to allow Tesla vehicles to navigate in cities, adding to an already-existing suite of driver-assistance features that allow the cars to move with traffic and switch lanes on highways. But Jennifer Homendy, head of the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, told The Wall Street Journal that Tesla should focus on safety first. 

“Basic safety issues have to be addressed before they’re then expanding it to other city streets and other areas,” Homendy said. 

The NTSB, which issues crash investigation reports, doesn’t have the regulatory power to preemptively stop Tesla from initiating the upgrade. But Homendy is hardly the first to raise concerns, or to point out that its tech does less than its name implies. 

Neither the planned upgrade nor anything currently offered by Tesla makes its vehicles fully autonomous. Instead, the company says drivers are supposed to stay ready to grab the wheel at any moment

Homendy told the Journal that consumers pay more attention to marketing than to warnings in the company’s car manuals or website—and in Tesla’s case, she said, “it has clearly misled numerous people to misuse and abuse technology.”

Plenty of videos on social media appear to show Tesla drivers asleep at the wheel

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In August, the U.S. government opened an investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot and Traffic Aware Cruise Control systems, citing 11 accidents in which 17 people were injured and one was killed. According to the New York Times, at least three Tesla drivers have died since 2016 while the company’s so-called “Autopilot” mode was engaged—with two failing to stop for tractor-trailers and one hitting a concrete barrier.

The company faces a barrage of lawsuits over these accidents, and one over false advertising. A Munich court banned Tesla Germany from including “full potential for autonomous driving” and “Autopilot inclusive” in the company’s advertising. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment from VICE News. 

Tesla, of course, isn’t the only company working on self-driving tech.

In Arizona, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, called Waymo is testing vehicles that are pretty much fully autonomous in some situations but not others. At first glance, these vehicles look a lot like the full, driverless monty. But there are big limitations here, too. 

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The cars stay within a 130-square-kilometer area that’s been carefully mapped to minimize surprises. There are roving support vehicles, and a team of humans in a nearby office ready to jump in as “remote supervisors” if things get dicey—say, around a construction site. And if the weather gets too crazy, the car might just shut down and wait for conditions to improve.

Given all these challenges, many prognosticators have backed away from putting a hard date on the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles. Some experts are suggesting that the technology will require a massive break-through in artificial intelligence, or redesigned cities that would be simpler for self-driving cars to understand. 

Even Musk has tempered his biggest claims. 

In 2019, Musk suggested that Teslas would soon be able to function as “robotaxis.” 

“It’s financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla,” Musk said. “It’ll be like owning a horse in three years.” 

This July, he struck a more modest tone. 

“Generalized self-driving is a hard problem,” He tweeted. “Didn’t expect it to be so hard, but the difficulty is obvious in retrospect.”