Toyota executive says self-driving car technology is overhyped

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Toyota invested in Uber’s self-driving program last month, but don’t expect driverless cars on the road anytime soon

For car companies, announcing bold, fast-approaching deadlines for when self-driving cars will hit the road has been an easy way to garner favorable publicity.

Volvo “plans to offer a true self-driving car by 2021,” the company announced in June. Ford has similarly promised a “fully autonomous vehicle” by 2021. Honda has said that self-driving cars will be ready for highways by 2020, and GM last year was reportedly “rumored” to be ready for full automation by 2018.

And then there’s Tesla, the leader in self-driving promotion. In January 2017, CEO Elon Musk made a particularly absurd promise to -- who else? -- someone on Twitter. The stranger had asked Musk when the “Enhanced Autopilot” feature currently available in Tesla cars would morph into something more closely resembling "Full Self-Driving Capability.”

“3 months maybe, 6 months definitely,” Musk wrote.

Now, just a month after investing half a billion dollars into a self-driving program at Uber, a Toyota executive is acknowledging that the technology is perhaps overhyped.

“Toyota doesn’t necessarily buy the hype about self-driving vehicles quickly taking control of roads in the U.S. and beyond,” Bloomberg reported on Wednesday.

Bloomberg made that assessment after visiting Toyota Research Institute, where the company has already invested billions in Artificial Intelligence and other automation technology, in addition to its recent partnership with Uber. The institute's Vice President John Leonard did not sound optimistic about driverless cars taking to the roadways.

“Taking me from Cambridge to Logan Airport with no driver in any Boston weather or traffic condition — that might not be in my lifetime,” he told the publication.

Caught in a “hype-cycle”

Leonard's comments come just a month after Toyota made a $500 million investment in Uber’s self-driving program. But self-driving is a vague term, and for Toyota, it already appears to mean something different than what people may think.

“Toyota’s self-driving vision isn’t really about getting rid of drivers. Rather, it’s about using autonomous and related technologies to make cars safer and more user-friendly,” the Bloomberg report adds.

This acknowledgement from the automotive industry follows years of similar statements made by experts, safety watchdogs, and other motorists. Dr. Phil Koopman, a world renowned self-driving car and robotics expert, told ConsumerAffairs last year that self-driving technology is “immature.”

“We’re in a hype-cycle,” he said at the time.

Cyclists and motorcyclists across the world have been more skeptical, questioning whether even the autonomous-style, driver-assist technology currently available in cars is ready for public roads.

Cycling activists in San Francisco were instrumental in convincing California regulators to stop an earlier self-driving car project organized by Uber from hitting the public streets. In response to the backlash, Uber took its fleet to Arizona, where a woman trying to cross the street with her bike was later killed by an Uber that was an autonomous mode.

Drivers in Phoenix more recently have complained about sharing the road with what they describe as erratic and slow self-driving cars operated by Waymo.

An “unnerving” development

Tesla owners who have been in accidents, or the loved ones of Tesla motorists who have died, have filed lawsuits accusing Tesla of misleading consumers about the current capabilities of its Autopilot feature--a sentiment that has been shared by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the agency that investigates high-profile transportation crashes.

Chris Hart, the former chair of the NTSB, said two years ago that he found the development of self-driving cars to be “unnerving.”

“Despite several decades of automation in aviation, airliners will have human pilots for the foreseeable future,” he reiterated in a recent interview with Think Progress.

“Streets and highways are much more variable and unpredictable than airways, and predictions that the streets will be filled with large numbers of autonomous vehicles within a few years are ignoring not only the lessons of automation history, but also the numerous additional challenges that will be faced on the ground.”

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