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Warning: Driverless Cars Are Farther Than They Appear

September saw big developments on the road to robotic vehicles. Uber inaugurated public test rides of its automated fleet in Pittsburgh; Elon Musk rolled out improvements to Tesla’s Autopilot driving mode; and the federal government released much-needed guidelines for deployment of the technology.

These steps came after months of global partnerships and investments related to autonomous cars. Scores of startups, auto and tech companies including Google GOOGL +0.85% , Drive.ai, Ford, General Motors GM +1.37% , Toyota, nuTonomy, Baidu null +0% and Delphi cumulatively are logging millions of test miles in automated fleets. The cars are loaded with state-of-the-art LiDAR, radar and camera-based sensor systems from suppliers such as Velodyne and Mobileye and packing massive data-processing capabilities courtesy of Nvidia and Intel.

You’d be forgiven for thinking our robotic car future is just around the corner, maybe months away. It’s not.

The new federal framework sets useful guidelines for states and companies seeking to test advanced vehicles on public roads, but at this stage they’re recommendations not regulations. Solutions to technological shortcomings, ethical concerns and even cybersecurity fears lie ahead before cars and trucks under the control of artificial intelligence can outperform fallible humans.

“There’s reason to believe they are safer than human drivers and offer a host of other advantages, but this leaves government agencies in a difficult situation because belief that the technology is better is not going to cut it in the eyes of many consumers,” said Nidhi Kalra, senior information scientist at RAND Corp. and co-director of its Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty. “One of the big challenges is if you can’t quantify the risk or risk-reduction of autonomous vehicles, how can you manage it?”

Gill Pratt, Toyota’s executive technical adviser and CEO of its new Toyota Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, sees a simple, albeit time-consuming, path to validating the technology: More practice.

“Up to now, our industry has measured on-road reliability of autonomous vehicles in the millions of miles, which is impressive,” Pratt said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. “To achieve full autonomy we actually need reliability that’s a million times better. We need trillion-mile reliability.”

By “full autonomy,” Pratt is referring to classifications created by the Society of Automotive Engineers to define stages of autonomous driving, ranging from none to full robotic driving at Level 5.

“Level 5 means the car will autonomously take you from anywhere to anywhere at any time under any circumstances,” Pratt said in a recent interview at TRI headquarters. Current vehicles from automakers including Mercedes-Benz and Tesla, with its semi-automated Autopilot feature, to prototype robotic cars from Google, Uber and Volvo are still at Level 2, with varying levels of advanced driver-assist functions, he said.

The new federal framework sets useful guidelines for states and companies seeking to test advanced vehicles on public roads, but at this stage they’re recommendations not regulations. Solutions to technological shortcomings, ethical concerns and even cybersecurity fears lie ahead before cars and trucks under the control of artificial intelligence can outperform fallible humans.

“There’s reason to believe they are safer than human drivers and offer a host of other advantages, but this leaves government agencies in a difficult situation because belief that the technology is better is not going to cut it in the eyes of many consumers,” said Nidhi Kalra, senior information scientist at RAND Corp. and co-director of its Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty. “One of the big challenges is if you can’t quantify the risk or risk-reduction of autonomous vehicles, how can you manage it?”

Gill Pratt, Toyota’s executive technical adviser and CEO of its new Toyota Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, sees a simple, albeit time-consuming, path to validating the technology: More practice.

“Up to now, our industry has measured on-road reliability of autonomous vehicles in the millions of miles, which is impressive,” Pratt said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. “To achieve full autonomy we actually need reliability that’s a million times better. We need trillion-mile reliability.”

By “full autonomy,” Pratt is referring to classifications created by the Society of Automotive Engineers to define stages of autonomous driving, ranging from none to full robotic driving at Level 5.

“Level 5 means the car will autonomously take you from anywhere to anywhere at any time under any circumstances,” Pratt said in a recent interview at TRI headquarters. Current vehicles from automakers including Mercedes-Benz and Tesla, with its semi-automated Autopilot feature, to prototype robotic cars from Google, Uber and Volvo are still at Level 2, with varying levels of advanced driver-assist functions, he said.