Thursday, May 27, 2021

"He knows Elon knows"

For those wanting to cut through the hype and bullshit around autonomous vehicles on land or in the air, there are few sources better than real engineer (and former fighter pilot) Missy Cummings. This Marketplace interview is highly recommended.

[Apologies for the formatting. Since Blogger upgraded its platform, it now takes twenty minutes of HTML editing just to undo the improvements and I just don't have the time.]

The California Department of Motor Vehicles said this week it’s reviewing whether Tesla is telling people that its cars are self-driving when, legally speaking, they’re not. This follows fatal crashes that may have involved its Autopilot feature. Tesla advertises a “Full Self-Driving” upgrade option. One man has been busted in Teslas more than once for reckless driving. He hangs out in the backseat and steers with his feet.

Meanwhile, no cars are fully self-driving yet. I spoke with Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University. She says the so-called deep learning that cars need to see the road around them doesn’t actually learn. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.


Cummings: I think there are three camps of people not just in self-driving, but in robotics and artificial intelligence in general. There’s the camp of people like me who know the reality. We recognize it for what it is, we’ve recognized it for some time, and we know that unless we change fundamentally the way that we’re approaching this problem, it is not solvable with our current approach. There’s another larger group of people who recognize that there are some problems but feel like with enough money and enough time, we can solve it. And then there’s a third group of people that no matter what you tell them, they believe that we can solve this problem. And you can’t talk them off that platform.

The people who are the biggest problem are the people in that second group, the ones that believe that with enough time and money, we can fix it, instead of recognizing the elephant in the room for what it is, which is not fixable under our current approach. And this is why you see companies like Starsky, a trucking company that went out of business, and you starting to see all the mergers across the automotive industry where all companies are either teaming up with each other or with software companies, because they realize that they just cannot keep hemorrhaging money the way they are. But that pit still has no bottom. And I don’t see this becoming a viable commercial set of operations in terms of self-driving cars for anyone anywhere, ever, until we address this problem. 


Cummings: Well, I think the Tesla situation is a little different. Should they be allowed to call their driving assist technology Full Self-Driving? So that’s one problem. And then, if you want to ask, is Tesla ever going to have a robotaxi program? I’ll tell you, that answer is no. But that problem is less acute for Tesla, because they have what is otherwise a great product. I love Tesla cars. I just think Autopilot and especially Full Self-Driving are both overhyped, and they underdeliver in terms of performance, and they’re dangerous.

Wood: So there’s a math problem and there is a pretty significant marketing problem?

Cummings: That’s right. So I think that we’re starting to see increasing numbers of crashes in this country and abroad, where drivers think that their car is far more capable. I think what is interesting to me was how the Tesla driver who got arrested for being in his backseat while he was driving vocalized that he’d already been warned once, and he defied the warning and did it again, and then said he would keep doing it because he knows Elon [Musk] knows what he’s doing. And he fully believes in Tesla.

And so what I find most interesting about that statement is that one man is vocalizing what so many people believe. They believe that this technology really can be fully self-driving, despite all the warnings and despite all the statements and the owner’s manual, and you having to agree that you’re going to pay attention. Despite all of those warnings, there’s some belief likely based in calling a technology Full Self-Driving and calling it Autopilot where people believe in the religion of Tesla full self-driving, and that is dangerous.

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