Executive Roundup: What’s Holding Back Autonomous Vehicle Tech?

Self-driving cars are coming — sooner than you think, and yet still very far away.

The most recent push for autonomous vehicles, and one that will likely result in achieving level 4 and 5 autonomy, took off in 2013 with several automakers announcing their work on autonomous cars. But the idea of a vehicle that could drive itself has been around since the early days of automobiles.

For instance, the New York World’s Fair in 1939 had an attraction called “Futurama” that depicted a city with cars remotely controlled by radio. Starting in the 1980s, the European Commission, DARPA, and many others got involved in the push for self-driving cars.

With all the work that’s been done over the last few decades, and ramped up these last few years, Mobility Buzz talked to several experts and entrepreneurs about what is still holding back the technology from being on the roads.

Following is an executive roundup of what’s holding autonomous vehicle tech back:

— Sasha Hoffman, Chief Operations Officer at Piaggio Fast Forward

“Certainly legislation. In a lot of places when [Gita, Piaggio’s autonomous device] is actually outside, many cities direct what they want, in terms of electric vehicles on the sidewalks — they can dictate separately. So it will be different for us to negotiate with New York, San Francisco, or Boston, or anywhere else so that certainly is a time constraint.”

That fact that Gita operates on sidewalks, and not roadways, means that any law available for the deployment of autonomous vehicles doesn’t necessarily apply to Piaggio’s product because sidewalks are controlled and legislated differently from streets.

“And then, as it relates to other hurdles, we — like everyone else — are dealing with the actual technology side of things. When you build autonomous systems, they’re not easy. There’s everything from LiDAR to visual slant to different visual solutions, and I think we are trying to figure out how to make them low-cost and scalable to the masses.”


— Chris Bessette, Program Manager of Highly Automated Driving Commercial Programs at Draper

“One thing I’m curious about … would be liability. Some companies say, ‘You know, we’ll assume all liability of autonomous vehicles if there’s something it shouldn’t do, we’ll stand by that.’ Other companies say, ‘You buy it, it’s your liability.’ I think it will be interesting to see as a society how we do that and will there be different regulatory environments in the U.S. versus Europe in how we handle this, and I think it will be intriguing to see how it evolves over time.”

Karl Iagnemma, Chief Executive at nuTonomy

“First, it’s getting the technology right and making sure it’s safe. Second, it’s deploying the technology in such as way that the public feels comfortable with it and they understand it and they know what its limitations are. I certainly think there is a risk — there are accidents or a rush to deploy, and there’s a case where public sentiment turns against the technology and there’s a lot of apprehensions. And that can happen regionally or even more broadly. So I think we as a community try to do everything we can to move cautiously, not just technically — how quickly you deploy — but also how you position the technology in front of the public, and you don’t create false expectations. Some of these issues are hard to completely control, but we are hopeful that the technology will be deployed in a thoughtful and streamlined way.”


Eric N Balles, Managing Director of Transport and Energy of Commercial Programs at Draper

“You will have many people that will describe the benefits, but it’s hard in a very general way at the same time, to balance that with how good it really is … There are a lot of great things: It will save lives in terms of the big scheme of things — so many fatalities are tied to errors in human perception and errors in human decision making that can be dramatically reduced. But you also have to understand … in the early days when it is snowing, the car at that point in time may not be able to navigate it. So it’s hard to get both sides of that message out. And I think it’s also hard when people doubt that a car can drive itself. We’ll never convince them, I don’t think. We’ll just have to age that part of the population out — and I say that being part of that population.”

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