Robotics expert: Self-driving cars not ready for deployment

Google self-driving car
The finalized prototype of Google self-driving car.

Self-driving cars are "absolutely not" ready for widespread deployment despite a rush to put them to put them on the road, a robotics expert warned Tuesday.

The cars aren't yet able to handle bad weather, including standing water, drizzling rain, sudden downpours and snow, Missy Cummings, director of Duke University's robotics program, told the Senate commerce committee. And they certainly aren't equipped to follow the directions of a police officer, she said.

While enthusiastic about research into self-driving cars, "I am decidedly less optimistic about what I perceive to be a rush to field systems that are absolutely not ready for widespread deployment, and certainly not ready for humans to be completely taken out of the driver's seat," she said.

It's relatively easy for hackers to take control of the GPS navigation systems of self-driving cars, Cummings said.

"It is feasible that people could commandeer self-driving vehicles ... to do their bidding, which could be malicious or simply just for the thrill of it," she said, adding that privacy of personal data is another concern.

But General Motors and Google officials who testified before the committee voiced worries that a patchwork of state and local laws will hinder deployment of the vehicles. They emphasized that the vast majority of auto fatalities are caused by human error, and self-driving cars hold the potential for eliminating many of those errors. They also pointed to the vehicles' potential to improve the lives of the disabled.

In the past two years, 23 states have introduced 53 pieces of legislation that affect selfdriving cars, said Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car program. He urged lawmakers to move swiftly to grant the secretary of transportation new authority to get "innovative safety technologies" like self-driving cars into the marketplace.

Critics have complained that the cumbersome federal rulemaking process means it sometimes takes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration close to a decade to set standards and issue regulations for new technologies, by which time the technologies have already been displaced by even newer technologies.

NHTSA said last week in a report there are significant legal hurdles to allowing fully autonomous cars without steering wheels. The agency is working on new policies aimed at getting the self-driving cars on the road sooner.

Michael Ableson, GM's vice president for strategy, said he believes it will be only a few years before the cars come into use, although they may not be fully autonomous at first.

None of the witnesses except Cummings was willing to say that the government should set minimum standards for the vehicles to protect the privacy of the data they gather and to prevent hacking despite being pressed by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to support mandatory standards.

"These cars are going to be one big data-gathering machine," Cummings said. "It's not clear who is going to be doing what with that data."

She also said she believes NHTSA's staff doesn't have technological capability to set standards for automakers on what they must do to prevent hacking and protect misuse of data.

The first ride many people will take in a self-driving car is likely to be when they use their cellphone to hail a car through a ridesharing sharing service like Lyft or Uber, witnesses said. Lyft and GM have formed a partnership to help bring the cars into everyday use.

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Industry calls for fast lane for self-driving cars (Update)

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User comments

Mar 15, 2016
They certainly are not ready, but there are forces in play which seek to deploy them as soon as possible anyway.

Mar 15, 2016
If expert will die in car-crash with human driver, I will call it "instant karma".

Mar 15, 2016
I cannot find anybody who hopes to buy a self driving car. Well i have to say that my wife drive like she needs to eat the bumper next to her, in this case I would press the SD (self driving or self destruction) button. Make me wonder if it is not be another gamic like the 3D tvs where nobody wants.

I know it's their Business and money but it sounds to me like it could be better invested in other car research field.

Mar 16, 2016
Autonomous vehicle research is not being driven by consumer desire, it is being driven by manufacturers and tech firms who see autonomous vehicles as possibly the Next Big Thing, which might bring in billions in profits.

Meanwhile, car manufacturers are loading up current vehicles with more and more intrusive and dangerous technology. We have air bag systems which maim and kill and which cannot be turned off. Not content, we are seeing a profusion of self braking cars with self braking systems which cannot be turned off.

Mar 16, 2016
I cannot find anybody who hopes to buy a self driving car

I would not buy a car at all if these were commonplace.

I'd just rent an autonomous one like "pizza delivery" whenever I need one. Less hassle (don't need to care whether it's topped up, repairs, service intervals, ... ) and I wouldn't need to pay for a permanent parking space I have now. Additionally I could rent the size I need tailored to my usage profile that day:
- do I need a 1 seater?
- do I need a 2 seater (or more for family)
- do I need liggage space?
- do I need heavy transport?

...instead of having to own "the biggest one I could possibly need" (soccer-mom syndrome) - which has always seemed somewhat wasteful.

Granted, I can do all this by renting cars today: but for that I always have to find a rebntal place first and go there (and how do I do that without a car?)

Mar 16, 2016
I don't expect the firs cars to handle bad weather. They will only handle perfect weather and will pass the controls back to the driver if the have a hint of confusion. The techs need to sort out perfect weather first. Bad weather will come much later.

Mar 16, 2016

But the self braking cars self brake without regard for the weather. Imagine being on ice when your car decides to self brake.

Mar 17, 2016
I'm sure most of these problems can be overcome, as hardware and software gets better, however, there are exactly two problems which may forever hinder the auto-car: Human psychology and cheapness.
The first requires that the autocar know what we would do in an accident scenario (we don't always make the right decision). For this reason, they might cause an accident because the laws of physics state that changing direction of a momentum of mass will be thousands of times slower than the computer's ability to "think".
Cheapness (or planned obsolescence) will ensure that the brakes, computers and other vital parts will fail, as they already do today.
If autocars take to the skies, they can eliminate #1 altogether, as they'll all interact within a millisecond and all "know what to do" without "super slow" humans getting in their way. Of course, that'll require exotic batteries or even "fusion on a chip".
Parachute would be the "air bag" (as long as it works).

Mar 19, 2016
The only mystery here is how many millions this Missy Cummings earned for his testimony.

Mar 19, 2016
The only mystery here is how many millions this Missy Cummings earned for his testimony.

It is a common practice to impuge the motives of someone who says something you disagree with when you have no valid arguments against the statements.

Common as in uncouth, boorish.

Mar 20, 2016
...instead of having to own "the biggest one I could possibly need" (soccer-mom syndrome) - which has always seemed somewhat wasteful.

It's pretty much give and take, as public rental cars are more expensive in the first place. You're paying more for extra miles to hail the car, plus company profits and taxes.

One thing to consider is that the self-driving cars can't just hang around on the streets when you're not using them, and they have to drive back to home base so the company can check you didn't spill a drink on the seat or place a bomb underneath it, or rig it with a credit card skimmer, so in reality there's absolutely no advantage. It's just a less efficient taxi.

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