LAS VEGAS — Although honesty, in corporate presentations at the Consumer Electronics Show, is typically not treated as the best policy, Gil Pratt, a former MIT professor who heads the year-old Toyota Research Institute, bucked that trend and leveled with his audience here Wednesday about the real future of autonomously driven robo-cars.
Citing the scientific and technical challenges, even with huge recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), Pratt said, bluntly, "We are not even close."
Pratt hung this prediction on the issue of passengers’ safety in self-driven cars. He noted that while human beings, tolerant of human error, have come to accept the 35,000 traffic deaths every year in the United States. But, he went on to ask if people could accept even half that number of deaths caused by robotic automobiles.
"Emotionally, we don't think so," said Pratt. "People have zero tolerance for deaths caused by a machine."
Pratt supported his point by reviewing the five levels of autonomy established and recently revised by SAE International, ranging from driver assistance (Level 1) to full automation (Level 5). It's Level 5 that Pratt emphasized as arriving far into the future.
SAE defines Level 5 as “the full-time performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver.”
Acknowledging that every carmaker is shooting for Level 5, Pratt said, “None of us is close. Not even close.” He added, “It's going to take many years of machine learning and many, many more miles" of tested.
As for the hopes of tech companies and automakers to achieve the "high automation" of Level 4, Pratt dashed a little more cold water, indicating that research at Toyota Research Institute puts that goal a decade away.
Pratt reminded that SAE defines Level 4 is “the driving mode-specific performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene.”
Leading automakers are talking about the rollout of Level 4 cars in 2020. For the immediate future, though, he sees Level 4 as "a fully automated car operating in a specially designed domain" with restrictions for speed, time of day and weather. “This matches up better with car-as-a-service” scenario, Pratt concluded.
In other words, this isn’t the scenario, of cars zipping hither and yon while passengers lounge about the car's interior watching movies, doing work, playing video games, as has been suggested by the more enthusiastic boosters of self-driven vehicles. Just such a utopia was presented later on Wednesday, to a cheering throng at the CES keynote session, by Jen Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia.
As for the intermediate levels of autonomous driving, Levels 2 (partial automation) and 3 (conditional automation), in which a "handoff" from the car to a driver is required when driving challenges appear on the road, Pratt was especially dubious.
Because of the driver's cognitive delay in reacting to an alarm issued by the car, called "vigilance decrement" by researchers, the "handoff" is an unreliable way to get control before a possible crash. This delay has been compared to waking a person from a nap.
"The less frequent the handoff," said Pratt, "the more drivers overtrust" the car.
Take the example of a Level 3 car driving at 65 miles per hour – roughly 100 feet per second. With the normal reaction time of a human driver at about 15 seconds, the response to danger won’t come until the car is 1,500 feet farther down the road.
Pratt said that the Level 2 car is already here, but some critics see it as a bad idea, he noted. Under a Level 2 scenario in which “a driver must always monitor autonomy,” he said it’s difficult for the driver to maintain “situational awareness.” The audience at the press conference was asked by Pratt to stare at a big clock on a screen and clap when the clock’s second hand advanced two seconds instead of one.
The test proved that this isn’t hard for a short period time. But when the same test continues more than a minute, mistakes accumulate. People get bored. “It’s the human nature.”
Drivers in Level 2/3 cars can not only overtrust driver assistance technology. They can easily misuse the ADAS features by pushing their limits, for example, Pratt explained.
"Some companies have already decided that the challenge may be too difficult, and they've decided to skip Levels 2 and 3," he added.