Sorry, Elon Musk! Driverless Cars Will Take Longer Than You Think.

Skepticism coming from researchers at UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon and MIT.


If you listen to Elon Musk, driverless cars are a technology that are just around the corner.

"I really consider autonomous driving a solved problem," Musk said in June 2016 in The Guardian. "I think we are probably less than two years away."

But, Bob Poole, Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation is skeptical of Musk's timeline. "Skepticism is coming partly from researchers […] at UC Berkeley, at Carnegie Mellon, at MIT who say this is a much harder problem than a lot of people, including Elon Musk, make it out to be."

Poole suggested to Reason TV's Editor in Chief, Nick Gillespie, that it will take a few decades at least before engineers are able to figure out the unexpected surprises of driving on city streets, not to mention the high cost of implementation into a market of cars that are not driverless. Further, Poole points out that once driverless options are available, they may completely throw a wrench in city transportation projects that are projected to take 30 to 40 years to build.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Editing by Paul Detrick. Shot by Meredith Bragg and Jim Epstein.

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  1. I’m really in two minds about driver-less cars. On one hand, my parents live about 4 hours away from my place of residence and is mostly freeway driving. I would love to be able to just lie back and take a nap while my car drives me home. On the other hand, I don’t know if I’m cool with my fate being completely and totally out of my hands.

    Regardless, current transportation is a major source of inefficiency that I hope one day the market will be able to solve.

    1. You don’t fly? Your fate is completely and totally out of your hands unless you consider storming the cockpit and taking control…

      But I do understand what you are saying – I would still want a steering wheel, brakes, etc. in my first auto car just in case I want to take control. It is not necessarily about giving up control, but about giving up control to a technology I have yet to become accustomed to. After a year or two I’d likely be napping on every long trip.

      1. Speaking of flying, people have spread the idea that we will have pilotless commercial air travel before driverless cars, because in flight there are fewer obstacles for automation to deal with. I don’t see it. Would you get on a plane with no pilot?

        1. I doubt there’ll ever be a plane with no pilot at all. Best-case scenario for that is a self-flying plane with a dude in the cockpit to make sure there’s no funky beeps and boops coming outta the robot pilot’s console. And the dude will have to be qualified to take over and fly the plane if the robot pilot fails.

          1. Funny thing about that, pilots’ skills are already atrophying from lack of use. Flying commercial planes are already so automated that industry bigwigs and technocrats are recommending that pilots manually fly the plane periodically just to maintain their training.

            That one French flight (200-something?) that crashed a few years ago wouldn’t have crashed had the flight crew been competent.

            Point is, it might be hard to keep that dude qualified, if he/she never actually has to fly.

            1. That one French flight (200-something?) that crashed a few years ago wouldn’t have crashed had the flight crew been competent.

              As a guy who watches Air Crash Investigations like my wife watches Dateline, I’ve noticed that most of the preventable crashes (the ones where a piece of the plane hasn’t fallen off) are caused by a pilot either overriding an automatic system or by the pilot reacting adversely to a failure condition of the automatic system.

              The pilot is the biggest liability in the cockpit.

              1. Air France Flight 447? That’s a very good example of both automation reacting badly to incorrect data and human pilots transitioning to manual flight in the worst possible way.

                Air France Flight 296 was the one that crashed at the air show. There’s video of that one. The cause is in dispute, as it was a new Airbus aircraft and there was politics involved. The pilot effed up but the automation likely made the recovery of control… problematic.

                1. 447 is probably the one I’m thinking of. I heard a podcast about it. The autopilot did mess up – but it messed up “as intended.” That is, one of the sensors got frosted over or something, and a prompt came on warning the pilot to take over. From there, the entire crew basically panicked and did every single thing wrong.

                  They literally had like 6 different chances to make a correction and not crash. Twas bad.

        2. Those planes are already capable of flying themselves.

          Not sure I buy the idea that there will be no pilots any time in the near future though.

        3. I don’t see it. Would you get on a plane with no pilot?

          Maybe not me – even though I know computer flies plane 99% of any given flight anymore, or that pilots could not thoroughly operate modern airliner at all without computers.

          I could definitely see my Amazon shipment boarding a pilotless plane though.

          1. Automated freight delivery is the immediate furture for driverless vehicles as well. There is no question of whether to risk the passengers or bystanders when a robot drives a truck; the cargo goes. The expense to companies of losing a few loads is much less than the expense of paying drivers, who are responsible for lots of losses themselves. So yeah, drone cargo planes and robot trucks are going to get her long before we all get robot drivers.

        4. “Would you get on a plane with no pilot?”
          Depends on what you mean by “no pilot”. A truly autonomous system, that’s given a flight plan, instructinos from the control towers, and that’s it?

          Hrm… that sounds unlikely right now.

          A more typical UAV system where there’s a GCS on the ground controlling it? Honestly, that’s within spitting distance of what we’re already doing.

          But either way, confidence is the key thing holding us back. Fact is, you need more pilots for every drone then you do for a traditional aircraft. Because everyone is so paranoid about the things that we need back-ups, and back-up back-ups and so-on. So really, taking the pilot out won’t be cost-effective until we’re more comfortable with an actual autonomous system, rather then the unmanned systems we currently have.

          All that said, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye at being told that the pilot is back in air control doing the whole thing remotely, and that they’ll be passing off control to someone else once we’re in the air.

          1. Army UAS systems have one pilot and one payload operator. They occasionally have a launch and recovery GCS AND a mission GCS.

            Sense and Avoid is one of the big autonomy problems in military UAS ops.

    2. What are you worried about, the worst that would happen to you is the car would go off a cliff and then you’d show back up a few weeks later with all new gear, powers, and name.

    3. Regardless, current transportation is a major source of inefficiency that I hope one day the market will be able to solve.

      This is an idiotic non-sequitur. You infer, without name, a major source of efficient travel out there that we not just can’t, but won’t, tap.

      Until we move to dilithium crystals and teleporters, transportation will always be a major source of inefficiency. Even then it will still be annoying with the amount of time that it takes and occasionally (or regularly) kill people.

      1. Non-sequitur? I raise you an idiotic Nirvana Fallacy.

      2. Dilithium crystals ? Boron11.

  2. Automated driving of long-haul trucking on limited access highways will be wide spread very, very soon.

    Automated driving of personal vehicles from any address to any address under any weather conditions ain’t happening for decades to come.

    1. Automated driving of long-haul trucking on limited access highways will be wide spread very, very soon.

      But the trucks will still have a driver who will have the ability to take over if necessary. So, unless you are a trucker with a porn or internet habit, that is not going to be life altering.

      1. Life-altering for who?

        Generally speaking, truckers get paid by the mile. But on the flip-side, they’re limited (by both regulation and human limitations) from driving all day and night.

        With autonomous mode for highways, the “driver” can “clock out”, climb up to their sleeper cab, and do, well, anything for a couple of hours. It will let them maximize their miles to “hours worked”. Might be a pretty big thing for them, at least initially before it becomes the new normal.

        The impacts to the rest of us will probably be minor. We might see shipments arriving a little quicker (since the trucks will be going pretty much 24/7), but the costs probably won’t change much. Well, the other big impact will be truckers perfecting the technology while will flow back to normal cars for everyone else eventually.

        1. “The impacts to the rest of us will probably be minor”

          Except for the few at ground zero of those impacts.

          1. Or maybe fewer impacts from tired and distracted truck drivers.


    2. They don’t have to work under “any weather conditions” to be useful and marketable. Even people don’t do much driving in severe weather. Fair weather, fog and light rain together make up the vast majority of vehicle hours driven.

      1. That is a really good point. Musk has been testing his contraption out in the bay area where the weather is nearly perfect all of the time. Lets see one of these things drive in a snow storm or in ice.

    3. I don’t assume that “automated driving” matches with “personal vehicles”, at least not initially. The technology, and probably the insurance liability, make it more likely that automated vehicles are for-hire only at the outset. And the for-hire rate will probably be very high at the outset, too. But it seems like the perfect “vehicle” for rich eco-snobs in California to promote themselves over. To be followed quickly by some rich whore sending out video of her getting a facial at 55 mph in a driverless vehicle.

  3. Yeah, I’ve been saying this all along. I do think we’ll see enhanced cruise control and other automated features come soon. But driverless is a ways off.

    1. Me too. It is just another jetpack.

      1. Not really.

        The Jetpack is not an engineering problem, it still remains a physics problem. That is with current or any conceivable future technology there is no way to pack enough fuel into a jetpack to give it sufficient burn time to be a usable mode of transport.

        Self driving cars do not require any new scientific breakthroughs, merely engineering to perfect them (for as close to perfect as is humanly possible) and then the regulatory environment that makes them economically viable.

        1. I’ll slightly disagree and say that self-driving cars are an economic problem, not an engineering problem. The problem is that the self-driving car is only usable within a certain radius of a large city and on interstate highways. There are millions of miles of less-well-maintained asphalt, concrete, gravel, and dirt that are completely unusable by a current-gen self-driving car.

          I see self-driving cars inhabiting a similar niche as EV cars are currently in: a toy for the rich that has a really hard time transitioning to mass appeal.

          1. There may be millions of miles of roads not usable by self driving vehicles but the roads they are perfectly well suited to driving on account for 99% of all vehicle miles driven so that is not really a factor at all.

            Sure ranchers in Wyoming might not find much use for them but anyone living in the suburbs will and that accounts for a huge portion of the population

          2. More importantly though, I did not say it was only a regulatory problem.

            I actually did say it was an engineering and regulatory problem, the Jet Pack remains one of basic science because all of the engineering in the world is not going to solve the fuel supply problem without some kind of scientific breakthrough.

            Engineering problems can be solved with sufficient application of time and money, regulatory problems can be solved with sufficient political will, problems of basic science are more problematic because there is no guarantee the breakthrough needed to solve the problem will ever happen or is even possible to happen.

          3. by a current-gen self-driving car

            which admits Rasilio’s point. enough engineering could see a self-driving 4×4 that will herd your cattle too.

    2. Indeed. I think we will shortly see cars that can keep going at a steady pace without changing lanes if you need to briefly relinquish control of the vehicle. Advantageous for long-distance driving along interstates and highways but I would be very reluctant to let it drive in urban areas.

      1. Euphemisms!

      2. Doesn’t the Tesla S already do all that? The reactive cruise control (both in altering speed if the person ahead of you is too slow and braking if needed) and “stay in lane” technology.

    3. Semi-autonomous could make things worse. Who wants drivers on the road who have been lulled into not paying attention?

      1. Who wants drivers on the road who have been lulled into not paying attention?

        Before long, we’d end up with a billionaire troll AI driving every car on the face of the planet!

  4. But I’ll still get to live for 300 years, right?

  5. The problem with driverless cars is they can’t interact with human driven cars. To give one small but really important example, merging into heavy traffic is really an art form and a mental achievement that is easy to underestimate. Driverless cars are hopeless at it. Everyone knows a driverless car is going to yield when confronted with a car that refuses to yield. So it is virtually impossible to prevent cars from bullying driverless cars and never letting them into traffic.

    Moreover, liability concerns will prevent them from ever going above the speed limit or in anyway bending the traffic laws like humans do. Yeah, have fun in your driverless car as it goes down the road in the right lane exactly at 55MPH. Is driving such a chore that you are willing to never exceed the speed limit to avoid doing it?

    1. “Is driving such a chore that you are willing to never exceed the speed limit to avoid doing it?”
      Both mine and my husband’s folks live something like 700 miles/13 hours away. Me and my husband have regularly driven this something like three or four times a year for the last five years. This Christmas, we’re talking about taking a plane. Because sure, it’s more expensive, and dealing with LA traffic to get to the airport will be annoying. But god damn, we won’t have to drive for thirteen hours.

      So yeah, assuming cost wasn’t an issue, if we could get on the highway, turn on autodrive mode, and then go “cuddle”? in the backseat, only being alerted when we get near our designated gas station waypoints? You can bet your ass we’d do that.
      ?Possibly a euphemism for sex. Possibly a euphemism for sleeping. Possibly a euphemism for playing stupid cell phone games.

  6. Technologywise driverless cars are just around the corner, maybe closer to 15 to 20 years than the 5 years guys like Musk peddle but they are not far away at all.

    That is just for the technology however, the regulatory systems for them could easily be multiple decades off

  7. I’ve always wondered, what will autonomous cars do at those left-turns that are always heavy with traffic and have no turn light?

    Real people just go when the light turns red. But an autonomous car won’t be able to break the rules like that. Will we be stuck at left-turns of death in perpetuity?

    1. Sit there and not move is what it will do. And I don’t see how you can solve that. You can’t tell it to run red lights.

      1. You might not get anywhere, but think of the epic smug you’ll enjoy while sitting there in your electric driverless kidnap machine.

        1. I know several people who have had their harddrives kidnapped by hackers. The possibilities for driverless cares in that area are endless. I have this vision of that happening to Ron Bailey and I just can’t keep from laughing at the thought.

          1. I have this vision of that happening to Ron Bailey and I just can’t keep from laughing at the thought.

            Only because I could see him enjoying it. He’s stuck in a car riding around the country while Reason holds a telethon to come up with the money. Meanwhile, the rest of us have to put up with double the amount of Dahlmia and Chapman.

            1. I’m thinking of a driverless kidnapping like this.

              1. My idea of a driverless kidnapping involves way more shattered glass and either a bomb or at least one ‘Would jumping from the car at this speed kill me?’ moment, maybe both.

              2. I’m thinking of a driverless kidnapping like this.

                Of course, once the government gets its way, the Police will be able to remotely control any driverless car to shut it down, or, worse, lock the doors and drive it to the local GarageJail…

          2. Yeah, but at least he’ll be 300 years old stuck in his driverless while the rest of us are all dead, and who’ll be laughing then? It’ll be sort of like the real life version of the MTA Song.

          3. The possibilities for driverless cares in that area are endless.

            It’s already happened/happening to people-driven cars…
            Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway?With Me in It
            The Jeep Hackers Are Back to Prove Car Hacking Can Get Much Worse

    2. Until people hack the AI and overcome such limits.


    1. Hear! Hear! Aren’t computers supposed to be smart enough to know these kinds of things?

  9. Why are researchers at universities skeptical?

    is it because they’re looking for research grant handouts from FedGov? Is it because they don’t like the fact that the advancements are mostly being made by private-sector, for-profit companies?

  10. I expect that driverless cars will be a thing, but not a really big thing the way that some pie in the sky futurists have proclaimed, at least not in the forseeable future. I’m a futurist, but I’m more cyncial than most futurists, probably due to my overall distrust of governments and their lack of ability to not fuck up something no matter how good it would otherwise be. My view of driverless cars is just meh. So many other things that are more important in terms of technological advances. Also, Americans still have a sort of love affair with automobiles and that’s not going away overnight.

    1. I think the technology will be here quite soon, but regulation is going to mess everything up. Along with the litigation.

      1. For once government regulation can do some good.

        1. Are you against driverless cars? Why….how???

          1. I’ve done some programming work in the so-called Internet of Things.

            This is one of those areas where the potential added convenience is really high, but the potential for abuse is even higher. Unfortunately, technological advances aren’t always a net benefit.

            1. The “Smart” Grid is another example.

          2. He thinks they are gonna ban him from driving.

            1. Elon Musk and his fanboy at Reason Ron Bailey have said that is the goal. Are they lying?

              1. Who elected them dictator?

                1. Because with a successful driverless system, a human driver would be a far greater danger to people around them.

                  I’m all for driving if you want to, but I also see the logic in “banning human drivers” as a goal.

                  Maybe driving for fun could be a thing that’s done in special, controlled areas. Like a large track, but made to model real driving scenarios- potholes, deer, shitty drivers cutting you off, etc.

                  1. I’m all for driving if you want to, but I also see the logic in “banning human drivers” as a goal

                    The very next step (or the very previous step) is mandating that autonomous cars (a.) notify government networks of the identity of the passenger(s), the destination, planned route, current location, and any deviations and/or stops for every trip, and (b.) allow government access to override their systems

                    1. I don’t find this slippery slope argument particularly convincing. There’s a clear motive and clear benefit to not having humans drive. In a fully automated car world, traffic could be travelling at speeds far faster and closer together than a human would be able to handle reliably. The benefits are enormous.

                      Tracking who’s going where, like you describe, is a much more vague, nebulous benefit, with a huge potential for abuse. There’s a clear logical case to refuse this, and it’s not in conflict with an automated car.

        2. For once government regulation can do some good.

          I won’t hold my breath.

      2. Does government revenue from tickets fall under regulation? Because the government isn’t going to want to give that up.

  11. I’m all in x1,000,000

    For once guys, just once, as Libertarians, can we please think of the children.

    1. “For once guys, just once, as Libertarians, can we please think of the children.”


  12. Recently saw news about Apple planning to enter this space. Because who wouldn’t want to ride in an autonomous vehicle powered by software from the people who created iTunes and Siri?

  13. This is nonsense. There is zero technological necessity to roll this out in the urban enclaves most opposed to it at all let alone first. Self driving cars will be huge and rather soon in spite of the urban objection to them. If anything suburban, intercity and interstate use is a better application logistically and economically anyway.

  14. It’s going to take more than driverless car skepticism and Musk-hate to get John’s donation, guys.

  15. It is not necessary that driverless cars be perfect, only better than a human driver. Being hit by a red light violator proves nothing. The human driver could probably not have avoided that either. The standard of performance is: is it better than a human driver in the same situations?

    1. That’s the logical criteria, but we all know that’s not what the actual criteria is going to be.

    2. I got it from a comedian (can’t remember which one, sorry), but I’m not sure it even needs to be “as good” as a human.

      It just needs to be as good as a horse. Horses, when their owners were drunk and couldn’t guide them properly, were still capable of slowly plodding on home, and dragging their drunk-ass rider with them without wrapping themselves around a tree.

      So that’s what we need. Not the ability to match your average driver, or the typical 16 year old dude trying to impress a girl, just need to make it as smart as a horse.

    3. Better as defined by whom? Because I can guarantee that it won’t be better from my perspective as a motorist stuck behind three driverless cars failing to properly handle a busy and uncontrolled intersection, negotiate a highway merge in mid-heavy traffic, or any other situation where a talented and experienced motorist knows he may have to break the written law. Due to liability and regulatory concerns that will never, ever be driverless cars so long as they share the road with humans, save for those vehicles that have been hacked by their owners to ignore these concerns.

      The people who are all-in on cars seem to want to completely skip the intermediate step whereby they have to interact with human drivers on a regular basis. They also have a tendency to ignore the security concerns inherent in an environment of networked cars, such an environment that will be required for this technology to achieve the potential offered by its boosters.

  16. “Further, Poole points out that once driverless options are available, they may completely throw a wrench in city transportation projects that are projected to take 30 to 40 years to build.”

    *Everything* throws a monkey wrench into glacial gov’t projects.

  17. In this video, there is discussion of instant mobility as a way to eliminate the private auto. Instant mobility is fine, but what everyone seems to miss in these conversations is the totally obvious fact that a car is a way to carry Stuff, keep your Stuff nearby and reasonably secure, and have it instantly available wherever you happen to be, when you’re ready to use it or move on. We are just not, not ever, going to run around in Ubermobiles wearing massive backpacks chock full of all the Stuff we might previously have put into the back of a car.

    Sounds like an opportunity, doesn’t it! Who’s clever enough to figure out a business model for that problem?

  18. I would have loved “autonomous” cars as a teenager!

    We had a “thing” while walking down the street (and knowing you had to cross it to reach your destination) that was essentially a game of “chicken”.

    5 lane road (2 each direction, turn lane in the middle)- You picked a spot to “suddenly” break across the 5 lanes of traffic, hopefully to watch some idiot in a car lock the brakes when your friend followed you a second too late. If your friend stopped short because you timed it right, he was a chicken.

    Now, imagine “autonomous” cars… you barely have to leave the curb. See a car coming, take 2-3 steps pretending you are going to cross right in front of it, then stop! Car “sees” you and emergency stops by itself because there is also a car in the lane beside it- you point and laugh- then when it attempts to move forward after that, you can even do it again!

    1. So what you’re saying is that “jay walking” will go from a rarely-enforced joke crime, to a serious offense.

      1. Yeah. So, again, the ability for governments to take this technology and use it to limit freedom is as endless as humanity’s capacity to take advantage of the technology’s flaws to satisfy whatever whims they have in the moment.

  19. Remember that CEO from Mozilla who was fired when they found out he donated to a PAC that was campaigning against gay marriage in California? To this day I won’t use Firefox, but I still support the right of those people to fire him for his views on sexuality.

    1. How did I get here?
      This is not my beautiful house…
      This is not my beautiful wife…

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  21. My biggest issue with autonomous cars is the privacy implications of constant GPS / mobile data / connectivity being a requirement for travelling anywhere you go. Granted, everyone carries a cell phone and license plates already link cars to drivers, but at least cell phones are voluntary and license plates require direct physical observation to exploit.

    What if the government mandated that all vehicles be equipped with a “kill switch” or override for law enforcement purposes? Imagine your car re-routing to the nearest police station after your phone auto-logs your Google account into your car when you have an outstanding warrant. Of course this will all be done under “implied consent” I’m sure.

    I know, it’s tin foil hat territory, but who would think the government wouldn’t try to exploit the opportunity to tighten its vice on our everyday lives?

  22. Sounds unreal, but I hope in the nearest future we will be able to try driverless cars 🙂

  23. There’s nothing he can’t solve with your money.

    He’s just a another Keynesian douche. He is a very smart keynesian but if you are a Keynesian, you are automatically very stupid as well.

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