The dream of the truly driverless car is officially dead

·4 min read
Google driverless car
A row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event in Mountain View, California, in 2014. AP
  • Driverless technology was heralded as a way to save costs and lives - but it still requires humans.

  • Major human oversight often means increased, not reduced, costs for business and consumers alike.

  • Ashley Nunes is the director for competition policy at the R Street Institute.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Lyft's quest for driverless cars is over. The company recently announced the sale of its self-driving unit to the auto giant Toyota. The move isn't surprising. Despite hefty investment, Lyft's driverless utopia, like many others, remains more fiction than fact.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In 2016, Lyft President John Zimmer predicted that driverless cars would, "account for the majority of Lyft rides within five years." By 2025, Zimmer reasoned, "private car ownership will all but end in major US cities."

Such reasoning was largely rooted in "techno-optimism": a belief that machines are superior to humans in terms of servitude. Sensors and software, after all, don't complain, don't tire, and don't demand pay hikes - or salaries at all, for that matter. This trifecta is purportedly a surefire way to lift profits - hence the tech-centric spending spree on all things autonomous. Ride-hailing companies have burnt millions over the years on perfecting the technology.

Yet, autonomous does not mean humanless. In "Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy," the historian David Mindell explained why. "There are no fully autonomous systems," Mindell wrote. "The machine that operates entirely independently of human direction is a useless machine. Only a rock is truly autonomous." Put another way, the type of automation that ride-hailing companies are betting on to boost earnings doesn't exist. It never has.

And if it did, humans would still play a role. The reason? Machines - much like humans - can't be trusted to get it right all the time, every time. Take what is arguably the longest-serving piece of automation today: the airplane autopilot. First introduced in 1912, the system is designed to balance an airplane so human pilots don't have to. The result is a smoother, safer ride for passengers. But as we know, there have been hiccups. In 1985, a jetliner flying for China Airlines nearly crashed after the autopilot failed to inform the crew about an imminent loss of control - a dangerous condition that can cause a crash. Because of such oversights, autopilot use today is contingent on human supervision.

This also explains why driverless cars remain, after years of development, not so driverless after all. Look beyond the headlines and you'll find human overlords watch from afar over purportedly automated systems. Customer-support staff are also on hand to answer rider queries - such as "What if I want to change my destination during the trip?" And then there's an armada of pricey engineers standing ready to solve vexing road problems, like what to do when a lane is blocked by double-parked cars, orange traffic cones, or the occasional taco truck.

All this human capital means more, not less, expense; bloated, not pared down, balance sheets. And that's problematic for an industry that has struggled to turn a profit. In 2019 alone, ride-hailing companies lost more than $10 billion, their financial statements being described as, "a hemorrhaging fountain of red ink with no path to profitability." Company execs had hoped self-driving investments would provide relief. The available evidence suggests otherwise.

It's time we see the driverless dream for what it is: a Disneyland-style spectacle that can't "live up to its sci-fi imaginings, a series of very expensive and glitzy pilot projects that can't cut it in the real world." Driverless technology might, on its best days, be astounding, but those days have been few and far between. Self-driving algorithms might - given the frequency of human folly - make intuitive sense, but intuition isn't always right.

Earlier this year, the UK government suggested that driverless cars could soon hit the A10, a major road in England that connects London to various cities to its north. "We're on the cusp of a driving revolution," noted Transport Minister Rachel Maclean. But turning that revolution into reality demands a guarantee of technological perfection - a guarantee that few, if any, driverless tech developers can give. Until that happens, expect human drivers to stick around.

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