Truly autonomous cars might be impossible without a helpful human touch

MILTON KEYNES, England, Sept. 12 (Reuters) – Autonomous vehicle (AV) startups have raised tens of billions of dollars on the promise to develop self-driving cars, but industry executives and experts say human supervisors may be needed. remotely to help distressed robot drivers.

The central premise of autonomous vehicles – that computers and artificial intelligence will drastically reduce accidents caused by human error – has driven much of the research and investment.

But there’s a catch: Making robotic cars that can drive safer than people is immensely difficult because self-driving software systems simply don’t have the ability for people to quickly predict and assess risks, especially when unexpected accidents occur. or “borderline cases”.

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“Well, my question would be, ‘Why?'” Said Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise, a unit of General Motors (GM.N), when asked if he could see a spot where human supervisors remote should be removed from operations.

“I can guarantee my clients peace of mind knowing that there is always a human being ready to help if needed,” said Vogt. “I don’t know why I ever wanted to get rid of it.”

This is the first time Cruise recognizes the long-term need for remote human operators.

Like air traffic controllers, such human supervisors could be sitting tens of hundreds of miles away monitoring video feeds from multiple AVs, sometimes with a steering wheel, ready to step in and get stuck robot drivers moving again: AVs invariably stop when they can’t figure out what to do.

Waymo and Argo of Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O), which is supported by Ford Motor Co (FN) and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE), declined to comment when the same question was asked.

GM recalled and updated software in 80 Cruise self-driving vehicles this month after a June accident in San Francisco left two people injured. US safety regulators said the recalled software could “incorrectly predict” the path of an oncoming vehicle, and Cruise said the unusual scenario would not recur after the update. Read more

For some, the idea that human supervisors may be here to stay raises more questions about the technology.

Truly autonomous vehicles are far behind the optimistic launch schedules predicted just a few years ago.

In 2018, GM sought US government approval for a fully autonomous car with no steering wheel, brake, or accelerator pedals that would enter its commercial racing-sharing fleet in 2019. That vehicle, the Cruise Origin, now it is not expected to start production until spring 2023, Vogt said.

In 2019, Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) CEO Elon Musk promised a million robots “definitely next year,” although his company’s “Full Self Driving” offering has been criticized because his cars won’t they are able to drive alone without a human behind the wheel and ready to take manual control in an emergency.

In a June interview on YouTube, Musk said developing self-driving cars was “much more difficult than I initially thought, by far.” But when asked for a timeline, he said Tesla could make it “this year”.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The broken promise of true autonomy has raised the stakes for the AV industry.

“If these companies are not successful in the next couple of years, they will no longer exist,” said Mike Wagner, CEO of Edge Case Research, which helps AV companies assess, manage and insure risk. “It’s a case of putting up or hushing up at this point.”


Many AV startups today use humans as remote supervisors, along with safety drivers sitting behind the wheel. Read more

Those remote humans are an added expense, but they help self-driving cars handle edge cases. These could include something as simple as an unknown series of lane closures during road construction or erratic and unpredictable behavior by pedestrians or human drivers.

When a robot driver encounters an edge case, “he raises his hands and says, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,'” said Koosha Kaveh, CEO of Imperium Drive, which uses humans as remote operators for cars in the English City. by Milton Keynes. Over time, these people will act as “air traffic controllers”, overseeing an increasing number of self-driving cars.

Cruise’s Vogt says the company’s AVs on the streets of San Francisco currently depend on humans less than 1 percent of the time. But on hundreds, thousands, or even millions of AVs, that would equate to a significant amount of standing time on the road waiting for human guidance.

Kaveh of Imperium Drive said that as more self-driving cars – which are more predictable than humans – hit the roads, the number of borderline cases will decrease, “but you’ll never get to zero borderline cases.”

“Even decades from now, you will not arrive at truly 100% autonomous vehicles,” added Kaveh.

However, competition is on the rise. Some Chinese cities are pushing to allow active AV testing faster.

The need to address edge cases and cut costs on everything from sensors to the number of people on the circuit to enter the market has also intensified as investor funding for self-driving cars has plummeted.

Doubt has crept in as investors question how soon self-employed businesses will become profitable. Simpler or slower AVs such as trucks or last-mile delivery services operating on freeways or slow-speed routes can reach profitability sooner, but it will still take years to get there.

According to investor website PitchBook, overall investments in future mobility startups have slowed, with AV-focused companies hitting particularly hard, accounting for less than 10% of venture capital investments in the second quarter. (Graphic:

Reuters graphics

Investments in AV startups fell to $ 958 million in the quarter. Just two years ago AV investments were booming, as Alphabet’s Waymo raised $ 3 billion, Didi’s AV unit raised $ 500 million, and Inc (AMZN.O) acquired startup AV Zoox for $ 1.3 billion, according to PitchBook.


Autonomous systems are not as capable as people because their “perception and prediction algorithms are not as good as the way a human brain processes and decides,” said Chris Borroni-Bird, an independent consultant who previously led programs. for advanced vehicles at GM and Waymo.

For example, a human being when he sees a ball rolling on the road – harmless in itself – will assume it could be followed by a child and press the brakes much faster than an AV, Borroni-Bird said.

“I am concerned that AV companies are rushing to market without proving that safety is better than human-driven vehicles,” he added.

The problem is that there are “tens of billions of potential edge cases” that AVs could encounter, said James Routh, CEO of AB Dynamics (ABDP.L), which conducts tests and runs simulations on cars, including advanced systems of driving assistance (ADAS) which are the basis of autonomous driving characteristics.

Automotive data startup Wejo Group Ltd (WEJO.O) receives 18 billion data points per day from millions of connected cars and is helping with simulations for AV, said Sarah Larner, executive vice president for strategy and innovation.

“But there are so many variables like time, you can take an edge case and then have to overlap all the different variations,” he said. “That really is millions of releases.”


In its car track tests, AB Dynamics uses a robotic arm that it plans to adapt to slow-moving agricultural and mining trucks to make them largely autonomous.

Routh envisions a remote team of humans overseeing fleets of, for example, self-driving mine trucks operating indoors.

He doesn’t see that scenario works for vehicles in faster, more open environments because it may be difficult for remote human supervisors to react quickly enough to dangers.

Within the next 12 months, UK food delivery and online technology company Ocado Group Plc (OCDO.L) will launch a small fleet of driverless delivery vehicles with autonomous vehicle software startup Oxbotica – backed by remote human supervisors. – which will only operate on a few roads on pre-set routes in a small UK town and never drive at speeds exceeding 30 miles (48km) per hour.

“At 30mph, if a vehicle panics, it can hit the emergency brake and seek help,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado. “It seems like a very viable low speed strategy.”

“But you can’t play that game on the freeway,” Harvey added, because abrupt stops at edge cases would pose a safety risk.

Harvey said Ocado should take about five years to develop a profitable driverless delivery system. More than half of Ocado’s customers in the UK could be reached with AVs driving at no more than 40 mph, she said. Eventually, the service could be rolled out to Ocado customers such as US retail chain Kroger Co. (KR.N)

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Reporting by Nick Carey in Milton Keynes, England, and Paul Lienert in Detroit Editing by Ben Klayman, Matthew Lewis and Louise Heavens

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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