Getting real about autonomous cars

Among my most interesting jobs is being a digital fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. There are often interesting developments happening there on the topics of artificial intelligence (AI), digitization, and digital platforms. That was certainly the case on March 8, when I attended the MIT Disruption Timeline Conference on AI and Machine Learning. There was interesting content on a variety of topics, but a primary focus was on when specific AI capabilities might become generally available. One particular technology addressed was autonomous vehicles. The key question was when 50 percent of vehicles on U.S. roads would be fully autonomous.

One alumnus and former MIT faculty member (also a former professor at Olin College, Babson’s sister school in engineering) who spoke and participated on a panel was Gill Pratt, now head of the Toyota Research Institute. The panel also included John Leonard and Tomaso Poggio, MIT faculty who have worked on this issue from the perspectives of mechanical engineering and brain research, respectively. If that weren’t enough, Manuela Veloso, head of the Machine Learning department at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and a robotics expert, came over from Pittsburgh to add to the panel with her insights. The panel was moderated by MIT director, Erik Brynjolfsson.

View video of the panel at the end of this article.

The key question was when 50 percent of vehicles on U.S. roads would be fully autonomous.

Overhyped or On the Way?

Of course, these experts are as excited as anyone about the potential for autonomous vehicles, but they are also relatively conservative about when the 50 percent standard might be reached. If you listen only to the Silicon Valley Industrial Complex, you might think they are just around the corner. But Pratt wouldn’t give a specific prediction, Leonard said that autonomous vehicles are over-hyped, and Poggio flatly predicted it would be 20 years before fully autonomous vehicles are on the road in large numbers.
Why so long? Leonard illustrated the problem with some video footage about trying to make an “unprotected left turn” into traffic on a snowy day in his Boston suburb. There’s a long line of cars that he wants to turn left into, and who’s going to let him in? And would a machine vision system be able to distinguish oncoming vehicles and lane markings in the snow? Not anytime soon, he believes.

Poggio, who is also on the board of directors of the Israeli machine vision company Mobileye, focused on the problem of identifying pedestrians. He noted that Mobileye has been able to double its ability to successfully identify pedestrians every year for the past 20 years, but the technology still wasn’t good enough.

Even more alarming, however, the improvement is beginning to plateau. He and the other panelists noted that the problem with autonomous vehicles isn’t the vehicle itself, but rather, predicting the behavior of other motorists and pedestrians.

Safety First

Pratt from Toyota was similarly conservative in his views about full autonomy, but his research center has some worthwhile alternative goals. He pointed out, for example, that although less than 1 percent of adult deaths in the U.S. are from auto accidents, 35 percent of teenage deaths are. So Toyota is trying to develop a vehicle with a “guardian” mode to protect teens (and other bad drivers, presumably) from making lethal driving mistakes. The company is also working on a “chauffeur” mode for older drivers who need continuous help — particularly important in Japan, with its rapidly aging population.


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