Our First Robots Are Here

Autonomous vehicles might just be an inevitable part of our near future. It’s been just over two years since Audi sent their autonomous SQ5 on a 5 472 km journey with obstacles like construction, highways city-driving and lane switching that exist on the stretch from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco across the country to downtown Manhattan without hands on the steering wheel. The test may have been a resounding success, but it's only recently when we have begun to see the concept of driverless cars outside of science fiction. Pioneers like Delphi who drive 99% of autonomous, have pushed the technology to new levels, and our governments alongside it.

In February 2016, the United States Department of Transport (DOT) announced the intention of licensing Google’s autonomous vehicle technology, as a registered driver under US Federal Law, license and all. Needless to say, this marked a significant moment in history. The real shift came in September that year when the DOT released “the most comprehensive national, automated vehicle policy that the world has ever seen” with their guidelines for the development of autonomous vehicles.

Even after the May 2016 incident that left Joshua Brown dead after driving into an 18-wheel tractor trailer while on his Tesla Model S’s autopilot, autonomous vehicles seem to be increasing in popularity all over the world. Self-driving taxis are driving passengers on the streets of Singapore and Pittsburg and it is estimated that by 2020, more than half of all the existing companies will have some form of AI, autonomous driving or machine learning on their vehicles. American vehicle manufacturer, Ford plans to mass-produce completely autonomous (steering wheel and brakes free) models by 2021. According to a report from BI Intelligence, there will be 10 million of them on the road at that point.


The first form of autonomous driving came with the cars powered by radio antennae almost one hundred years ago in 1925. Some of the technology used in the self-driving vehicles on our roads today have been in existence for decades. Carnegie Melon University began using neural networks to drive their own vehicle across the country in 1989. The technology is essentially a constant research and development project with different companies and institutions taking completely different approaches altogether.

”We’re not going to ask the driver to instantaneously intervene. That’s a fair proposition.”

-Jim McBride

"If there's a hazard on the road and if the driver doesn't re-engage, the system doesn't have to do anything about it. That's a very scary design prospect."

-Bryant Walker Smith, professor at the USC.

The environment has emerged as a concern as well, the technology to navigate tricky situations at stop signs, adjusting for animals straying onto the road, or bad weather can prove problematic and the science is not settled on whether machine learning has the capabilities to respond in life threatening circumstances with most systems having no hope of being tested in practical applications.

These barriers don’t seem to deter Tesla, however.

”We have decided not to let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the ‘better’. Instead, we will release ‘better’ as soon as it is available”

Tesla Spokesperson


In February 2016, America’s national Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) followed Obama’s nearly $4 billion investment into research for autonomous driving with a groundbreaking announcement that the AI system controlling Google’s self-driving car must and would be considered a licensed driver.

Without clear regulations, testing self-driving cars prove a challenge, even though there are many states and republics that allow some form of autonomous driving, California is currently the only one that awards driving licenses to non-humans. This may be because of the tech presence in that state lobbying the hand of government to sway policy.

This shouldn;t be the case, as it is estimated that autonomous driving could have real world consequences for our understanding of the vehicle insurance industry for instance. Immediate questions of liability arise and legislation is the only way to resolve these matters before they become mainstream.
We are racing towards completely unchartered territory and we don’t have legislation to guide us yet. In four years, will I be able to renew my license? What will that license look like? Will it be awarded to me or the car? How do you police license abuse in those circumstances? What about those who are currently too young to be permitted to drive? Has the age limit moved past the life expectancy of humans? People with disabilities? Essentially, who can drive these cars, and how will our governments justify any answer they give to these questions?
In the next five years, it is predicted that the first vehicles will be high-end luxury models brought by consumers. But, Tesla’s master plan insists on a shared vehicle provision for all the hours your cars are parked idly.

Much more predict that the first industry to dissent will be haulage and freight as the truck drivers will most likely have a harder time finding jobs.
For now, it seems where we see them depends entirely on the societal factors of the place you are looking in. Toyota’s AI Lab has listed a few reasons why they believe we have been, somewhat inadvertently, preparing for the wide adoption of autonomous vehicles on a global scale.

  • Wireless internet: The rise of 4G networks and WiFi have made it easier than ever to connect.
  • Mobile phones: The explosive growth of mobile technology, the low-powered computer processor, the computer vision chips and cameras, and cell phones, in general, have become "incredibly inexpensive and ubiquitous."
  • Computer centers in cars: Most new cars today have backup cameras, front and back sensors, and other technologies that help the vehicles detect objects in the environment and alert the driver.
  • Deep learning: Some computers now have "perception at levels of competence close to what a human has," said Pratt. "The car can look out on the world and tell the difference between a bicycle and a person that's walking, and a tree and a parking meter—and it can then classify them either almost as well as we can, or in some cases, even a little bit better."
  • Maps: If you're talking about either the navigation system you have in your car, said Pratt, or Google Maps in your phone, digital maps have become really good.

"The technology has finally become mature," said Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. Although vehicles have been equipped with intelligent features for the past couple of decades, such as pop-up headlights, automatic seat belts, adaptive cruise control, lane correction, and more, the technology is now becoming "better, more reliable, and more cost-effective."

-Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute

Technological Challenges

While companies like Tesla and Google have gotten a lot of press lately, it's still too early to tell definitively who’s leading the disruptive trend. "This is still an emerging technology," said Thilo Koslowski, former vice president and automotive practice leader at Gartner. Miller agrees: "The big players right now may not be the big players in a few years."

Beyond the question of who will be first, Koslowski isn't sure that kind of comparison makes sense, anyway. That is because once the technology is perfected, companies like Google will be looking for partners. Also, "anybody who's working on this helps the entire category. There's a learning curve and a trust factor that needs to be considered" Koslowski said. Consumers aren't necessarily looking to buy the first model to hit the market, either.

Consumer Confidence

We’ve disrupted many industries in the last five years. But, hailing a ride from the tap of a button after a night of bingeing is miles away from getting consumers to sit in these machines. It may require a rethinking the entire car culture we've built over the past century. Driving is about radically change altogether: trust is bound to be central to the adoption of the new technology.

“The core challenge is determining whether the relevant technologies have reached a demonstrated level of socially acceptable risk. This is the first robot we will experience on a day-to-day basis. Loss of control and trust is what a lot of people have problems with. All of a sudden, we’re delegating a task that consumers have been doing for a century to a robot.”

-Thilo Koslowski, former Gartner Analyst

What empirical model defines socially acceptable risk? According to Koslowski, Smith, and others, it depends on a public understanding that these cars will not be flawless. Meaning it comes down to human beings being reasonable. (Great). While working as Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Alec Ross, author of Industries of the Future, traveled to 41 countries under Senator Hillary Clinton’s State Department as her Senior Advisor for Innovation where he observed a particularly deeply-ingrained distrust of robots in Western society.

"How quickly can we get consumers to feel comfortable and want these technologies?" asks Koslowski. The answer depends on how realistic we are, he said.
Although safety is predicted to improve significantly, with an expected 80% reduction in accidents by 2040, the idea of "safety" may need to be redefined, shifting from driver to software. According to Smith, new areas of concern could include technical failures, related to bugs, as well as security vulnerabilities—cybersecurity will become a major concern when these cars hit the road. Still, the danger posed by cyber security attacks "pales in comparison to the carnage on the road today," said Smith. "I'm concerned about the vulnerability of vehicles, but I'm terrified about today's drivers in today's vehicles."

Many people may find it more forgivable for a human to make a mistake on the road than the computer that's in charge. Should security and safety improvements, the combination of technical uncertainties with cultural baggage in the western world make it likely that we will have a low tolerance for error when it comes to safety in autonomous vehicles? Smith predicted that "the first crash, the first injuries, and fatalities, will be a big deal. Any given regulator will be crucified for an issue with a feature or technology they approved that had a bug."

"Most of us grew up thinking of freedom as a steering wheel and a learner's permit. I vividly remember the first time I stomped on a gas pedal and zoomed out onto a highway; the car pounced with such force that I was thrown back in the seat. That sensation is still burned into my mind."

-Pagan Kennedy, Journalist

Relinquishing that control will undoubtedly require a culture shift, letting go of the nostalgia especially with the varying levels of comfort projected by people when it comes to entrusting a self-driving vehicle to keep them safe

”Self driving cars haven't yet achieved the level of reliability where I'd be comfortable without a fail-safe mechanism."

-Joe Jones, Co-Founder iRobot

And Helen Greiner, CEO of drone company CyPhy Works also has mixed feelings. "I'd be comfortable driving if I had the ability to grab the wheel—in few years," said Greiner. "If I'm going to be in the backseat and the car's fully driving, I think it's going to take me a little bit longer."

Still, some are perfectly comfortable ceding control. Roman Yampolskiy, director of Cyber Security Laboratory at the University of Louisville, puts it this way: "I had the 'privilege' of being driven by teenagers and seniors, and would pay good money to have an AI drive me instead."
Joanne Pransky, the self-dubbed "robot psychiatrist," echoed the sentiment: "What could be more life-threatening than sitting as a passenger in a car being driven by a distracted teen in training? Self-driving cars can't come soon enough!"

“If you went back 15 years and asked people if they wanted smartphones, they would say, 'No. What? Why would I spend money on that?'. Many people were first skeptical of smartphones—they were difficult to use, expensive, intrusive, and some worried about the harms of radiation. Now, suddenly, they were popular, convenient, a business necessity—[and] people adopted them. When someone is losing their sight or no longer able to drive when a fifteen-year-old wants to get to his friend's house easier, when people reliant on mass transit realize they can get someplace much quicker, they will embrace these autonomous vehicles. We should be terrified, of conventional driving."

-Bryant Walker Smith, professor at the USC

But whether fully-autonomous driving arrives in two years or five, there is no doubt that it is close—and no doubt that it will radically alter the way we live.