Driverless cars are not quite around the corner as previously thought.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Driverless cars are not quite around the corner as previously thought.

Fully autonomous vehicles will allow the driver to do something else or nothing at all during the drive, but the tech has hit some speed bumps.

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AFTER initial years of hype and optimism, autonomous vehicles now look farther in the horizon than ever before.

None of the predictions made four or five years ago are close to fruition. In 2013, Nissan Motor said it will have driverless models by 2020. Soon after that statement, others like General Motors, Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo jumped on the bandwagon with similar predictions.

They were joined by nontraditional automotive players such as Apple, Google and Uber – as well as dozens of like-minded companies in China. Even the Pentagon announced plans to go driverless.

In 2015, Tesla’s flamboyant and somewhat vocal chief Elon Musk said his company would have an autonomous model by this year (2018). Well, we are now well into the second half of 2018, and the only news we have been getting about driverless Teslas has been less than positive.

It is clear now that we are not going to be seeing driverless cars zipping about any time soon. The next earliest target, according to experts Torque spoke to, is 2030. And even then, it would be a relatively simple application, such as platooning or convoying function on highways. Fully autonomous cars which can function with no human intervention in city traffic will be even further down the road.

The programme’s sudden loss of verve can be attributed to a few factors. One, it was oversold from the start. While various driver-assistance systems are becoming more commonplace across car brands, they do not amount to autonomy.

In fact, Tesla’s labelling of its Autopilot system has been named as one culprit in this area. America’s reputable Consumer Reports, for one, has questioned if the “Autopilot” term had given owners a false notion that the car could drive all by itself. Clearly, it cannot, as tragic crashes have proven beyond a doubt. 

Such accidents are the second reason why the autonomous programme is being pushed back – voluntarily or otherwise.

In May 2016, a Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode crashed into a trailer at high speed, killing its driver. Apparently, the car’s system was confused by the high ride height of the trailer, and the sun’s reflection on its side.

In March this year, an Uber driverless test vehicle – a Volvo XC90 – ran into and killed a pedestrian crossing the road. None of the car’s sophisticated obstacledetection systems managed to prevent the fatal crash. 

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“Autopilot” for automobiles hasn’t taken off despite all the hype, tests and demos in the last five years.


That same month, a Tesla Model X ploughed into a road divider, killing its driver. As with most other similar accidents involving Autopilot, the car had sped up before the crash.

All three fatal accidents happened in the US, but there has been at least one outside America. In January 2016, a Tesla Model S crashed into a road sweeper in Handan, Hebei province, China, killing its driver.

The third reason – and probably the most pertinent one – is that companies are beginning to realise that the technology required for letting cars drive on their own is not quite ready for implementation in the real world.

While tests on highways and less-than-busy suburbs have been conducted with relative success, there is still much to be done before autonomous vehicles can fend for themselves in busy downtown traffic.

Which may explain why the companies which have been unabashedly bullish with their predictions in the last five years have suddenly gone quiet.

Take Apple, for instance. The firm best known for its mobile and desktop products was among those most optimistic about a driverless world. But of late, it has become uncharacteristically silent, sparking speculation that it has shelved the project. As it turns out, Apple has realised that it cannot go it alone, and has sought partnerships with various automotive groups.

After long-drawn negotiations, Apple has managed to persuade Volkswagen to jointly develop a driverless car based on the VW Transporter van, according to a report by the New York Times.

All the other automotive manufacturers which proclaimed a driverless future have also become rather mum of late. With all the uncertainties and perils which have emerged in the last five years. it will be understandable if these companies pulled the handbrake on their autonomous-driving projects.

Does that mean driverless cars are doomed? Not quite. The day will come when the technology reaches a level of readiness. Just that no one knows when that day will actually arrive.

Good news for driving enthusiasts, then.