Self-driving cars: Hype-filled decade ends soberly

The calendar will soon turn to 2020, and you can be forgiven if you’re wondering where your self-driving car is. A decade of hype and bold predictions is coming to a quiet end.

Automakers and tech companies have promised a transportation utopia, and invested billions to try to make it so. Tesla’s Elon Musk talked of autonomous cross-country trips in 2017. GM promised self-driving rides would be available in 2019. Ford was more cautious with its choice of 2021.

But now those deadlines are passing and humans are still behind the wheel. Uber, once one of the hardest charging companies in the field, put its program on hold for nine months in 2018 after one of its test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. It’s going to be a while — maybe a really long while — before self-driving cars transform our daily lives.

“Robotaxis have been three years away for probably the last five years,” said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, co-founder of Refraction AI, a startup making delivery robots. “We’re seeing a reckoning between what technologists understood to be the hard problems that were going to take us 10, 15, 20 years to solve, and what was a hype cycle.”

Johnson-Roberson’s work in autonomous vehicles dates to a 2004 Pentagon-sponsored race. He says he’s amazed at the progress since then, but has shifted his focus to slow, lightweight robots, because they’re simpler to build.

A long list of challenges has slowed self-driving cars and trucks. It’s hard to prove that they’re safe. Their sensors struggle in bad weather. The vehicles lack the human touch to smoothly navigate four-way stops, and merge into traffic. Some experts believe the vehicles won’t go mainstream without a technological breakthrough.

A few years ago, Google’s self-driving unit Waymo “seemed remarkably confident. I thought maybe they knew something that I didn’t,” said Pedro Domingos, a professor at the University of Washington who researches artificial intelligence. “But I’m starting to think, actually, they don’t know something I know.”

Domingos is among those who believe a technological leap is needed so that self-driving vehicles can interact with humans and handle novel situations gracefully. Artificial intelligence struggles when it faces a challenge it hasn’t seen before.

Some of the largest developers of autonomous vehicles, including GM and Aurora, declined to comment on whether a breakthrough is necessary for the technology to enter our daily lives or if they believe its achievable if they simply continue down the current path. Waymo referred CNN to an interview in which its chief technology officer Dmitri Dolgov discussed the company’s wide-ranging efforts to develop the next generation of software and hardware.

“These are all going to come together,” Dolgov