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Sept. 20, 2021, 4:20 p.m. EDT

Self-driving technology needs a reset — and this is what it would look like

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By Mike Feibus

When I rode in an autonomous vehicle four years ago, I was struck by two things.

The first was the pit-of-your-stomach gut flutter I felt when the packed sedan propelled itself onto a busy San Jose, Calif., thoroughfare. It was the same out-of-control feeling I get when a roller-coaster I’d just been locked into jerks into motion, lurching skyward.

And the second thing was just how quickly we passengers went from petrified of the tech to bored with it, in search of conversations and other more interesting things to occupy our attention.

We were literally driven to distraction. Which is a distinctly human shortcoming.

Read: Electric vehicles are gaining traction, but chances are that you’ll still be driving a gas-powered car in 2035

Computers, on the other hand, aren’t cursed with that affliction. They are uniquely qualified to scan the road unendingly, with the same piercingly efficient intensity. No matter how long and uneventful the ride, no matter how infrequent the required response might be, computers are always ready. More important, they’re always the same amount of ready. They don’t get tired. They don’t get distracted.

And yet, for all their unwavering capacity for focus, self-driving vehicles mischaracterize oncoming traffic conditions with a regularity concerning enough to prompt a federal investigation. In August, an office of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided to investigate 11 crashes where Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA -0.63% vehicles drove themselves into first-responder scenes, piling a new emergency onto one already being cleaned up.

Had humans been driving during any of those crashes, they would have instantly characterized the situation, and responded accordingly. Provided, of course, that they were paying attention.

This week the NHTSA demanded the same data Tesla must provide from the U.S. offices of a dozen more automakers with vehicles that “control both steering and braking/accelerating simultaneously under some circumstances.” The automakers: BMW /zigman2/quotes/202432319/delayed XE:BMW +1.01% , General Motors /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM -0.68% , Honda /zigman2/quotes/207173990/composite HMC -1.47% , Hyundai , Kia, Mercedes-Benz /zigman2/quotes/201850364/delayed XE:DAI +0.25% , Nissan, Stellantis /zigman2/quotes/204248628/composite STLA -0.34% , Toyota /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM +0.56% and Volkswagen /zigman2/quotes/203434344/delayed XE:VOW3 +0.41% .

On the surface, the data would help the feds gauge how Tesla’s Autopilot compares with the rest of the industry. Or the requests could signal the start of a broader investigation into the state of self-driving technology.

I hope it’s the latter. Self-driving technology continues to improve. But it will never be as good as we are at some things. Because the models are built on flawed goals. So the technology needs a reset before companies drive AI into new areas, like the potentially uber-profitable robo-taxi business.

Never hire a human to do the work of a computer — or vice versa

At first blush, combining AI’s boundless attention spans with our ability to quickly and accurately assess new situations has the makings of a better, safer next-generation driving experience.

Except that the industry is headed in the opposite direction. Rather than marry our strengths, developers are determined to teach AI how to better spot hazards — and demand that we pay more attention.

See, developers are approaching autonomy with a brute-force mindset that if enough vehicles packed with mini deep-learning datacenters drive enough miles on enough roads, eventually the technology will be ready to recognize anything. Adding to this impossibly Sisyphean task is the fact that everyone isn’t working together on it. Rather, there are multiple duplicative efforts underway, each driven by a competitive desire to dominate road smarts.

But alone or together, they won’t succeed — can’t succeed — for the painfully obvious reason that there will always be some previously unlogged combination of flashlight beam, police tape reflection, siren and moon phase that AI might mistake for an all-clear intersection. And those in the autonomous driving world know that. Because their goal isn’t to eliminate accidents, but to avoid them at least as often as humans do.

That’s no way to run a disruption.

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Oct. 26, 2021 4:00p
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$1029.23 billion
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88.42
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/zigman2/quotes/207173990/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE
$ 29.56
-0.44 -1.47%
Volume: 943,412
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P/E Ratio
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XE : Germany: Xetra
83.10
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$ 20.29
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N/A
Dividend Yield
0.00%
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$63.71 billion
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$521,383
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/zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE
$ 173.20
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2.29%
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$700,558
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206.10
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