A few weeks ago I attended MIT’s Second Machine Age Conference, where I heard a number of very interesting presentations on the evolution of AI, robotics, and other advanced technologies. The prospects for truly autonomous vehicles was one of the main topics of discussion. With most other topics, there was considerable audience consensus, but not so with self-driving cars. While many thought that fully autonomous vehicles will be all around us within a decade, others, myself included, were not quite so sure due to the many technical and societal issues involved.
What do we really mean by self-driving cars? There seems to be no precise definition. Are we talking about a human driver assisted by all kinds of advanced technologies, or is there no driver whatsoever? Will such vehicles operate amidst regular human-driven ones, or will they be confined to special lanes equipped with sophisticated navigational technologies? And, is self-driving per se the actual objective, or is it a metaphor for the development of near-crashless cars regardless of whether human drivers are still in the picture.
These questions are not surprising given the very early stages of such a complex area. When exciting new initiatives are first launched, we sometimes describe them using an attention-grabbing phrase that, while potentially unattainable in practice, should be taken more as a marketing pointer to a general direction rather than as a realistic near-term objective.