The Trouble with Self-Driving Cars? People

October 25, 2018
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Sam Diamond

Autonomous cars are likely a long way from widespread adoption. But we can’t wait decades to make driving smarter and safer.

If you go back to 2017, it seemed as if autonomous vehicles were on the horizon, ready to be adopted by the general public. Elon Musk, then an all-powerful, unquestionable high priest of the future, predicted in a May 2017 TED talk that, in about two years, Tesla owners will be able to go to sleep at the start of a drive and wake up at their destination.

Unless Tesla has managed to keep hold of the best-kept secret Steve Jobs announced Apple was getting into phones, this seems unlikely. It looks like the original adoption forecasts for self-driving cars were way too optimistic.

A few recent articles explore why this is the case. An in-depth article and Twitter thread by Amir Efrati at The Information explains the incredibly complicated development process undertaken by Waymo in Phoenix, Arizona, where they’re testing their fleet of autonomous vehicles.

The Waymo cars can drive autonomously, and it’s likely they would be able to do so without too much difficult in a perfect world developed for them. But we don’t live in that world, and it’s unlikely we ever will.

In a world where every person behaved as a rational actor, choosing the option that made the most practical sense in the situation, self-driving cars would be ok and only make the occasional mistake. The problem is that humans don’t behave like that.


As Gill Pratt, head of Toyota Research Institute, told Efrati, “The trouble with self-driving cars is people”. The cars don’t yet know that a mother holding a child likely won’t cross the street illegally but two teenagers might. So the problem with self-driving cars isn’t the cars, it’s people.

But people are also, at least for the time being, the solution to the problem. By building technology that puts humans at the center, assisting them as much as possible to make driving safer, smarter, and more fun. The human brain is, for the moment at least, more powerful and pliable and, as a result, more adapted to driving. Most new cars come fitted with parking sensors, and if we can add lane assistance, highway autopilot and smart voice assistants. The latter is what we’re working on--we’re building a smart voice assistant to enable drivers to stay safely connected on the road.

So, the utopia of self-driving cars is imminent--but it won’t be soon. Let’s work on other means of making driving safer, smarter, and more productive in the meantime.


Sam Diamond
Sam Diamond
Story and Social

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