Fully autonomous cars may take longer to hit the streets than initially predicted. Picture: REUTERS
Fully autonomous cars may take longer to hit the streets than initially predicted. Picture: REUTERS

We may have been overzealous in our expectations of autonomous cars imminently becoming part of the daily driving landscape, it seems.

When driver aids like automatic cruise control, self-parking and lane-keeping systems first started appearing in modern cars, it seemed that the technological leap to fully robotic cars — known as Level 5 autonomy — was just around the corner. We pictured ourselves relaxing in the car, watching our favourite Netflix series or catching up on our social media, while the vehicle drove itself to the chosen destination.

But some car companies are starting to scale back their initially optimistic time frames for the introduction of self-driving vehicles.

There is simply too much unpredictability on roads for a self-driving car to manage, believes Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was an early proponent of autonomous vehicles.

Apple’s Project Titan division has been working on a self-driving car project, but Wozniak has since scaled down his expectations.

"I stepped way back [on] this idea of Level 5. I've really given up," Wozniak said during the JD Power Auto Revolution conference in Las Vegas last week.

"I don't even know if that will happen in my lifetime."

Autonomous vehicles would fare better "if we were to modify roads and have certain sections that are well mapped and kept clean of refuse, and nothing unusual happens and there's no road work," he was quoted as saying in Automotive News Europe.

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The reality of current self-driving systems doesn't match up with consumers' expectations, he said.

"What we've done is we've misled the public into thinking this car is going to be like a human brain to be able to really figure out new things and say, 'Here's something I hadn't seen before, but I know what's going on here, and here's how I should handle it,' " Wozniak said. "A human can do that."

His statements come as more automakers and governments are beginning to predict that artifcial intelligence (AI) and self-driving cars might take longer to become reality, in the wake of fatal accidents by “autopilot” cars that have shown the complexity of the technology.

Component manufacturers and venture companies working on the technology are revising their timeline for AI deployment significantly, Toyota’s Executive Vice-President Shigeki Tomoyama said at the Tokyo motor show.

"Right from the get-go, we figured it's going to be a time-consuming endeavour," he said. "There's no particular need to rethink the time frame for our AI self-drive technology investment and development."

Toyota will soon release its first so-called Level 2 autonomous car which is capable of driving itself on the highway "from entrance to exit, with traffic merging capability", Tomoyama said.

Other carmakers already sell Level 2 cars, but a growing number are extending their schedules to develop future autonomous technologies, citing the high technological complexities of setting self-driving cars loose on busy roads.

Modern cars are increasingly being equipped with vast numbers of sensors to give them 360° views of their surroundings, together with automatic steering and braking in a bid to reduce crashes, but they still don’t have a handle on human behaviour and gestures — things that human drivers intuitively recognise.

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For instance an autonomous car that sees a pedestrian stepping into the road would come to a halt and wait for the person to cross, but won’t recognise if the pedestrian decides to stop and wave the car on.

Nissan has also abandoned an earlier in-house target to develop cars which can drive themselves on city streets by 2020. At the moment, its cars are able to drive on highways and park autonomously.

To develop the more advanced Level 3 hands-free automated driving technology, Nissan will need at least until the late 2020s, Tetsuro Ueda, from Nissan's mobility service research centre, told Reuters in October.

Volkswagen is also revising its expectations of how soon it can implement self-drive technology.

"We really thought at the beginning, it would be just maybe next year or so," Aria Etemad, a project manager at Volkswagen Group Research, told Reuters. "But as we dig into that topic, we see huge complexities that we are facing."

General Motors self-driving unit, Cruise, said earlier this year it was delaying the commercial deployment of cars past its target of 2019 as more testing of the vehicles was required.

The Japanese components maker Denso, Toyota's biggest supplier, believes it will take years for the technology for fully self-driving cars to hit the roads.

"The most difficult aspect of developing these driving systems is to anticipate unexpected movements in the vehicle's surroundings," said Hajime Kumabe, the head of Denso's engineering R&D centre in Tokyo.

Other technological challenges with “thinking” cars is we need to make sure they can’t be hacked by those with ungodly intentions, and we also need to teach them to resolve tricky ethical issues.

For instance, if it comes to an unavoidable collision will the autonomous car choose to crash into a pedestrian, or swerve into a tree and kill its passengers?

Other carmakers remain more optimistic, including Tesla which expects to release a fully functional self driving car by the end of the year, although CEO Elon Musk says the cars would still need supervision by a human driver.

Waymo, the self-driving vehicle company and formerly the Google self-driving car project, is forging ahead with the technology too, and since December last year has operated a limited robo-taxi business in Phoenix, Arizona where users use an app to hail a self-driving car.

Uber recently announced a third-generation version of its self-driving car, developed in partnership with Volvo. Uber returned to testing self-driving vehicles on public roads after one struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018.

The car still has a steering wheel and pedals, but Uber says it’s been designed to ultimately operate without a human behind the wheel. It has a failsafe system in that if any of the primary systems should fail, the car immediately comes to a stop.