What it is: The University of Michigan is testing a self-driving shuttle.
The fantasy is that self-driving technology is almost ready and that self-driving cars will soon flood the world’s roads. The reality is that self-driving technology isn’t ready for snow-covered roads, detours due to traffic accidents, and dirt roads in rural areas. Just as the Wright Brothers started with a simple airplane rather than build a 747 jumbo jet, self-driving technology is going too tart off slowly until the technology matures.
The simplest way to test self-driving technology is to limit its scope. Rather than put a self-driving car on the road and hope for the best, the University of Michigan is putting self-driving shuttles on part of its campus that has the least amount of traffic. The goal is simply to test self-driving technology within a restricted space to minimize problems while still gathering data on self-driving technology.
Once self-driving cars master a restricted space, then it’s likely self-driving cars will graduate to larger domains such as driving only on certain roads. By limiting self-driving cars to major roads, engineers can gradually overcome problems such as snow, hard rain, pedestrians darting in front of moving cars, and avoiding cars driven by human drivers. Besides limiting self-driving cars to restricted domains, the second way to introduce self-driving technology is to put it in cars as assisted-driving technology.
Instead of a car driving itself, a car can display warnings if a human driver gets too close to another car and automatically brake before an impending collision. Such assisted-driving technology will aid drivers and collect more data for the future of self-driving cars.
The eventual goal is a self-driving car. The immediate goal is to learn the flaws and drawbacks of self-driving technology before releasing them to roam in the wild on their own. Self-driving technology isn’t ready for total freedom and trust from both a technology and social point of view. Can a self-driving car drive itself over a snow-covered road while winds constantly blow snow over the road, hiding the road’s surface? Probably not.
Will people trust a self-driving car? Probably not. At least not until they see self-driving cars working in limited domains or get used to assisted-driving technology in their own cars. Self-driving cars will arrive eventually, but it will take time. Until then, projects like the Apple Car can continue learning and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Just don’t expect the possible to become reality too soon.