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Robot cars ‘not even close’

Hands off: Toyota Research Centre CEO Gill Pratt said that level five, fully autonomous cars are still a long way off.

Toyota research boss offers up a realistic timeline for autonomous cars

6 Jan 2017

TOYOTA has injected a healthy dose of realism into the ever-more enthusiastic hype surrounding self-driving cars.

Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas recently, Toyota Research Centre chief executive officer Gill Pratt cut to the chase saying that the auto industry was “not even close” to launching fully autonomous cars.

This flies in the face of pronouncements from many other major car manufacturers.

In August last year, Ford boss Mark Fields announced plans to offer self-driving vehicles by 2021. These are to be completely autonomous cars that come without steering wheel and pedals, and would be aimed at fleets which provide autonomous mobility services.

Mr Fields did acknowledge that it will take several years longer for autonomous vehicle sales to the public.

Also last year, General Motors head of foresight and trends Richard Holman said at a conference in Detroit that most industry participants now think that self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020 or sooner.

Of course, cars with varying levels of self-driving capacity are available right now, with the Autopilot-equipped Tesla S probably the best known.

Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, says that he now expects fully autonomous Teslas to be ready by 2018, but acknowledges that regulatory approval may take up to three more years.

Autonomous driving capability is defined in levels from one to five. At level one the driver still controls most functions, while at level five the car does it all. The interesting and most contentious part is in the transition.

“Historically human beings have shown zero tolerance for injury or death caused by flaws in a machine,” said Mr Pratt. “As wonderful as AI (artificial intelligence) is, AI systems are inevitably flawed. It’ll take many years and many more miles, in simulated and real world testing, to achieve the perfection required for level five autonomy.”

Mr Pratt said that level four autonomy is "almost as good" and will have a much shorter timetable for arrival. "Toyota Research believes it's very likely a number of manufacturers will have level four within a decade," he said.

Vehicles with that level of autonomy are likely to be attractive to mobility companies such as Uber, and may offer the quickest path to market for highly autonomous cars. Safety would be less of an issue because a fleet owner can maintain control over the circumstances in which the vehicles are used.

Despite that, Mr Pratt said it could be decades before a significant portion of privately owned vehicles are equipped with level four or level five technology.

While the auto industry hurries to develop autonomous capabilities, Mr Pratt says one key question remains unanswered: "How safe is safe enough”?"Society tolerates a lot of human error,” he said, “but we expect machines to be much better than us." Mr Pratt cited a figure of 35,000 car crash fatalities in the US last year, and suggested that was a figure that society would be unlikely to tolerate if machines were to blame rather than human error.

“Even cutting that figure in half is unlikely to be good enough. In the very near future, this question will need to be answered," he said.

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