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Opinion: Elon Musk’s projections for autonomous vehicles aren’t just overly optimistic – they’re wrong

Autonomy to do rides in Tesla’s TSLA,
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planned robotaxis affordable and safe. Musk predicted that his company will “far exceed human safety levels…ultimately probably 10 times safer than a human in terms of likelihood of injury.”

Don’t bet on it.

Should any of Musk’s predictions prove overly optimistic, no one will be surprised, least of all Musk. But the problem here isn’t excessive optimism about the pace of improvement. The development of so-called “autonomous vehicles” not only takes longer than expected. You are a dead end.

AV skeptics can point to a decade of failed promises. The response from AV proponents is that the predictions were just overly optimistic about the pace towards the goal. The pace of progress may be disappointing, they admit – but we’ll make it.

But we have well over a decade of experience to learn from, and that experience reveals persistent prejudices that exceed expectations.

We have been promised that technology will nearly eliminate motor vehicle accidents for 90 years. In 1934, the leading American expert in this field, Miller McClintock, promised that state-of-the-art highways “can be built in such a way that accidents are impossible”. With access controls, gradations, medians and hard shoulders, he wrote, “foolproof highways” are possible. McClintock estimated that such roads would reduce deaths by 98% – enough to justify the promise of “complete permanent safety”. In the press, McClintock’s claims were widely accepted as fact. In 1937, the Chicago Tribune made “surefire highways” the #1 catchphrase of its editorial platform.

Restricted-access highways are much safer than other roads, but not nearly as safe as McClintock promised. Had he been right, the death toll today would be too small to provide AV advocates with their favorite moral argument.

Musk promises to deliver the dramatic gains through incalculably more sophisticated technology — technology that completely takes over the human driver. However, this apparent fact masks the same elementary error in both forecasts and in many others over the past several decades. To arrive at their conclusions, the slips of the tongue strip away all the dangers that make the status quo dangerous—without adding all the big new dangers that the innovation introduces.

On restricted-access highways, most of the new hazards have been due to the speeds such roads invite. In fact, if no driver exceeded 20 mph, fatalities on them would drop to near zero. But Autobahns justify their cost by allowing much faster driving — at speeds that can be deadly. Similarly, the technology in AVs can make them much safer, but the faster the vehicle goes, the less the technology can do.

Sensors can perceive almost instantly, but like humans, AVs can take time to interpret unusual objects with high reliability, and they need to track moving objects over time to predict how they are likely to behave. At low speeds, such problems are manageable. A slow AV has time to interpret, track, predict, and react—and if it still fails, a low-speed collision may be minor. But to attract paying drivers in large numbers, AVs would need to offer speed. And at speed, AV’s errors will be much more common and much more deadly.

There’s more to the “foolproof highway” comparison. People driving restricted-access highways must travel regular roads and streets to get to and from them. The safety advantage of roads cannot extend everywhere, and safer highways can increase casualties on the roads around them simply by attracting more motorists.

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Likewise, there is no direct path to a pure AV future in which all vehicles on the road are automated. There must be mixed AVs and conventional vehicles for many years. Conventional cars can be networked, making them easier for AVs to monitor, but mixed traffic will remain so difficult that AVs will have to be either dangerous or slow.

Having AVs slow will prolong the transition (why ride in a slow AV?) and introduce new safety hazards as frustrated human drivers attempt to overtake slow AVs.

Finally, AVs will continue to disappoint because they are misnamed in a way that inflates our expectations of them. “Autonomous” predisposes humans to imagining AVs as unbiased hyper-rational beings with a “self” that can drive and enough discretion to exercise autonomy. The misperception is evident in Musk’s choice of words: “self-driving … that is better than human.” When designing an AV, the goal of engineers is to ensure that everything the vehicle does is what its human designers do and operators want. Unpredictable behavior of the vehicle must be ruled out. The goal in AV development is to ensure that the human determines the vehicle’s performance so thoroughly that the vehicle itself cannot have any autonomy.

AVs are indeed human-powered vehicles, although the operators are not in the vehicle and they control it through programs rather than a direct physical interface. These human operators must be biased – otherwise they will not have paying human customers. Except in niche applications or loss-making services (like Alphabet’s GOOG,
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google,
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Waymo and perhaps Tesla’s later robotaxis), they must not value safety so much that the vehicle never goes faster than 32 km/h. They also need to value the customer experience more than the preferences of others outside the vehicle – if they don’t, they will lose their customers.

These human biases are business imperatives, and they come at the expense of security that precludes the kind of security gains Musk and other AV advocates have predicted. AVs cannot become common until they can generate more revenue than they cost. And they can’t do that and prioritize safety over customer satisfaction.

AV proponents were not overly optimistic about the pace of AV development. You were wrong about what AVs have to offer.

Peter Norton is Associate Professor of History in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and author of “Autonorama: The illusory promise of high-tech driving“.

Now read: Elon Musk Called ESG a Scam – Did Tesla CEO Do Investors a Favor?

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/elon-musks-autonomous-vehicle-forecasts-are-not-just-too-optimistic-theyre-wrong-11652877067?rss=1&siteid=rss Opinion: Elon Musk’s projections for autonomous vehicles aren’t just overly optimistic – they’re wrong

Brian Lowry

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