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Huge obstacles to autonomous vehicles have "scarcely been addressed" as Uber sells its self-driving car unit

Posted by Warwick Business School at 15 December 2020, 21:49 CET |
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Following news that Uber has sold its self-driving car unit to a start-up, Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, said:

"We have all seen impressive videos of drivers switching on autopilot while on motorways or freeways, where they happily sit reading as the car speeds along by itself. This reflects the seemingly impressive progress progress being made on creating cars that can sense their surroundings and other road users.

"However, the challenge of moving these cars into the tighter confines of towns and cities, where have to 'negotiate' a route through heavy traffic, has scarcely been addressed.

"Motorists often solve problems by communicating with each other using facial expressions, hand gestures, honking horns or flashing lights.

"A self-driving car’s cameras won’t be good enough to see the smiling, pointing or nodding. Equally, it might be programmed to recognise that flashing lights means go, but it can also mean 'hello', ‘watch out’, ‘there is something wrong with your car’ or 'I am angry about your terrible driving!' The context usually gives the answer, so that implies we might need a different rule for an apparently limitless number of contexts.

"Car manufacturers and tech giants are all grappling with these problems to allow autonomous vehicles to move among us, but the rate of progress on this challenge is pushing the boundaries of cognitive science and may prove a decisive limiting factor in the development of autonomous vehicles.

"I am beginning to think that the the best way forward may be to avoid the problem rather than confronting it, by giving autonomous cars their own roads and lanes.

"To mix them with human drivers on our complicated and cluttered roads seems too overwhelming and dangerous. Already a pedestrian has been killed by Uber’s self-driving car as its perception system became confused by the woman pushing her bike across the road - traffic negotiation presents another hazardous and perplexing situation.

"After some time these spaces can be gradually increased until all our vehicles are autonomous - what we’ll be creating is something more like a flexible train or tram system with no rails. Self-driving cars offer an exciting future with many possibilities, but autonomous vehicles can become a reality most easily if the rest of us road users keep out of their way."

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