When Driverless Car Demonstrations Are Less Than They Seem

This report was inspired by the many and varied demonstrations of self-driving vehicle technology over the past few years and the widening gulf between the appearance of capability and the reality. The aim is to inform non-specialists about some of the different methods used to enhance the apparent driving proficiency of prototype driverless vehicles.
Self-driving vehicles form an understanding of where they are and where they want to go using advanced versions of contemporary mapping and navigation systems — mature technology. This includes dynamic route planning that changes course based on traffic conditions and road closures. Ideal paths derived from mapping are the foundation stone of nearly all (if not every) self-driving system. The disparity in capability between projects lies in how the car copes with differences between the ideal route and the actual environment. The best systems recognise objects and create an understanding of their real-time situation, together with predictions of how the scene might unfold. Lesser systems do not have this ability, or are capable only in simpler scenarios. This inadequacy can be disguised by the design of the demonstration (not that anyone would do such a thing). To explain the background clearly, this report covers the following areas:
A beginner’s guide to object recognition — a brief overview of what a self-driving artificial intelligence (AI) tries to identify in its surroundings and why.
An introduction to scene understanding and prediction — an overview of how the artificial intelligence can use its understanding of the local environment to make driving decisions.
An overview of different demonstration events; relative difficulty and how to spot fakes — four complexity levels:
• The parking lot demonstration
• The closed course demonstration
• The carefully selected on-road demonstration
• The high-confidence on-road Level 4 demonstration
This includes examples of how the demonstration can be simplified to make the vehicle appear more capable and some ways that you can investigate further. The issue is that, as shown in the table below, nearly all demonstrations appear sensational, so it is important to bring greater objectivity to the near certain euphoria felt on exiting the vehicle.

The only conclusion is buyer beware — look carefully behind the curtain. Very few people have travelled in a driverless vehicle and the experience remains impressive, even in circumstances where it is heavily staged. This report simply aims to assist objectivity in the face of thrilling and often seemingly compelling technology demonstrations.

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About Ad Punctum
Ad Punctum is a consulting and research firm founded by an ex-automotive OEM insider. We bring focused interest, an eye for the story and love of detail to research. Intellectual curiosity is at the centre of all that we do and helping companies understand their business environment better is a task that we take very seriously.
About The Author
Thomas Ridge is the founder and managing director of Ad Punctum, based in London. You may contact him by email at tridge@adpunctum.co.uk.
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