I’d hate to do it (not really), but I have a bubble to burst. That autonomous car thing? Not the best idea. At least for a while.
The race to vehicular autonomy has sent some of the biggest names in automotive technology into innovation overdrive. Google, Tesla, and Audi are just a few of the many companies scrambling to create a car that doesn’t need constant human direction. There is however one automaker that has chosen to steer clear of the hype, focusing instead on the technological elevation of human-centric systems. If Toyota has its way, bad driving could become a thing of the past – and good drivers will have nothing to do with it.
For the longest time, Toyota was the manufacturer whose cars you could take to the bank — both literally and figuratively. The Japanese company’s wares were famously capable of piling on the miles without showing any sign of duress. Due to this utilitarian approach to its products, Toyota wasn’t always touted for its technological prowess.
On the other end of the spectrum, Google – the company that represents humanity’s aspirations of a future inspired by Isaac Asimov novels. From modest beginnings with a piece of code capable of indexing the Web, the Google innovation juggernaut now has its tentacles in a myriad industries – from health, to virtual reality, and even space travel.
Interestingly, the two seemingly unrelated entities have been pitted against each other by the rise of a truly futuristic piece of technology – the driverless car.
Toyota has developed a culture of innovation without risking its image as a maker of affordable, dependable four-wheelers. The Prius pioneered mass-manufactured hybrid power. Since then, the brand has been steadfast in iterating on its clean propulsion and driver-assistance systems. However, it hasn’t shown the same enthusiasm for autonomous technology.
The New York Times reports that Toyota has invested $50 million on a collaborative project involving a team compromising Stanford and MIT researchers. Both cars and artificial intelligence will be central to the undertaking, but a viable autonomous vehicle is not the endgame. Instead, the aim is to make cars more “intelligent.” The system will be designed to make up for shortcomings in human judgement, which we all know could use all the help it can get. Referred to as parallel autonomy, there’s a special focus on making cars easier to use for the elderly.
Toyota’s passing on the chance to gain first-mover advantage in the driverless car market is a bold one. It is especially interesting in view of what we’re learning about autonomous technology the more we ponder it. Apparently, cars driven by a robot aren’t everything we dreamed they’d be. There are considerable kinks to iron out before such cars can become mass-produced road-legal motor vehicles.
According to this story by the BBC, simulations show that allowing drivers to take their mind off driving might be the biggest problem with a car that pilots itself. Situational awareness, a distinctly human capability, can neither be coded for nor called into action by an otherwise distracted driver. This problem will be compounded in the future, when drivers may only learn to take over from the car in the direst circumstances, without enough experience behind the wheel to know what to do in the situation.
There’s also the problem of teaching cars to make decisions. This is especially challenging when the options can’t be weighed against each other objectively. Consider a case when a car has to swerve to the left or right, with a motorcycle on one side and a car on the other. A driver may be able to make the call that a side-on collision with a car is less damaging to its passengers than a motorcycle. Teaching a car to do be just as prudent will require a big leap from currently available technology.
The autonomous vehicle fad has its origins in the heart of Silicon Valley, where imaginations are often untethered from reality and innovation rarely caters to the general populace. With that in perspective, Toyota’s modest aspirations are more widely relevant than a self-driving car. About 30,000 people die in traffic-related accidents annually in the USA alone. That number is higher in more populous developing nations. The need of the hour is technology that will help reduce fatalities and make up for compromised decision-making.
Though autonomous technology is exciting, in its current state, it is innovation for its own sake – disconnected from the needs of the masses and a high-spirited attempt at expediting the onset of the future. For now, human beings are the most dependable autonomous machines around. Everything else we build needs to augment our functionality, not make us obsolete.
Prateek Jose is a writer and engineering undergrad from India with an unhealthy obsession for obscure historical trivia. Conversations about absurdist fiction and the technological singularity make his day. He’s already uploading parts of his brain to servers by writing for websites such as this one.