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What am I missing about self-driving cars?

Car companies are throwing caution aside and expecting to put thousands of cars on the streets before there has been sufficient testing.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently announced that Uber would be adding self-driving cars this month, working to modify some Volvo vehicles.
Wang K'aichicn / Getty

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

It seems as though every automotive company — plus Uber and Lyft — is touting the imminent arrival of self-driving cars. In an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Travis Kalanick announced Uber would be adding self-driving cars this month, working to modify some Volvo vehicles. Ford’s CEO Mark Fields claims that his company will be offering self-driving cars soon, and Lyft and GM are rolling out a plan as well.

The automotive industry has been notoriously slow in adding innovation, often taking two or three years to make a minor change that could affect drivability, reliability or safety. Yet all of these companies are throwing caution aside and expecting to put thousands of cars on the streets and highways before there has been sufficient testing.

Rarely does any product or technology come without unintended consequences. A recent fatal crash of a Tesla was attributed to the driver’s recklessness and relying too much on the car’s sensors, which apparently were blinded by the sun. Problems like this are to be expected. There are millions of combinations of traffic situations, interactions with objects in the road, bicyclists, pedestrians, the environment, human behavior and other diversions. It’s impossible for engineers to anticipate every situation. Engineering is imperfect, and design is only improved by identifying the issues, the corner cases and the missing assumptions, fixing them and then doing more testing.

Unlike other products, where a phone call might not go through or an app crashes, failures of self-driving cars are much different: People will die. It will take the testing of hundreds of vehicles for thousands of hours to refine and prove out the design. Compounding this is that there is not one standardized approach from which the industry learns from each participant and sets requirements for performance and testing.

Instead, we have dozens of companies, all taking their own approaches, with some relying on subcontractors, and all leading to a very confusing environment. Companies that have done their homework, such as Google, are unlikely to share their learning with companies it considers competitors.

And considering that we have companies like Uber (which has never developed hardware and likely has little understanding of hardware issues) putting cars on the road, we may have a disaster in the making. Uber in particular has not been a shining example of maximizing the safety of its customers, with its failure to do adequate vetting of its drivers, based on charges by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.

Bringing on self-driving cars prematurely is the best way to kill a technology. Every incident, injury or death will be greatly magnified in the press and, even though the fatality rate might be much lower than conventional cars, it could kill the industry or severely slow it down before it gets started.

Don’t get me wrong. I think self-driving cars will be one of this century’s greatest technical achievements. But I am just astounded at how little work has been done by the companies planning to populate our streets with two-ton vehicles being controlled by software but little testing.

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author and journalist covering consumer technology. He has developed scores of products for companies, including Apple, Seiko, Polaroid, Barnes & Noble, Polycom, Proxima, ThinkOutside and Pono Music. Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript and founder of Techsperts, Inc. Follow him at Baker on Tech, and reach him @pbaker.

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