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Tolling Points

Autonomous Vehicles Move Past the ‘Hype Cycle’

Bill Cramer

It was bound to happen.

Like every promising new technology that has ever been subject to overheated hype and impossible expectations, connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) have come crashing back to Earth in the last year, as pundits and promoters began noticing the gap between promise and reality.

It doesn’t mean the underlying hope is misplaced, or that the technology is dead—quite the contrary. It just puts CAVs at an awkward point in the maturity cycle that many emerging technologies face, when the initial excitement they create collides with the less glamorous, more practical, stepwise process of turning a great idea into a mainstream reality.

The ‘Hype Cycle’ Hits Autonomous Vehicles

By the time CAV booster extraordinaire Elon Musk began promising a million “robotaxis” on the roads next year, or asserting that “sometime next year, you’ll be able to have the car be autonomous without supervision,” the wheels were already falling off the more extreme claims for a rapid transition to autonomous mobility.

“None of us have any idea when full self-driving will happen,” said robotics expert Gill Pratt, director of the Toyota Research Institute, in a mid-June interview with the New York Times.

“We’ve tried to turn down the hype and make people understand how hard this is,” he told the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year.

An earlier round of rethinking broke out in December 2018, with the Ars Technica blog looking back on a year that began with high expectations for an industry that was subsequently “battered by bad news”. The post traced the series of setbacks encountered by Uber, Tesla, and Waymo, all prompting industry analyst Sam Abuelsamid to acknowledge an “increasing recognition from everybody—OEMs down to various startups—that this is all a lot tougher than anybody anticipated two or three years ago. The farther along they get in the process, the more they learn how much they don't understand."

Crucially, Ars pointed out that the observation is no surprise. It’s actually right on schedule. And, fundamentally, it isn’t particularly about CAVs.

“In the self-driving world, there's been a lot of discussion recently about the hype cycle, a model for new technologies that was developed by the Gartner consulting firm,” wrote senior tech policy reporter Timothy B. Lee. “In this model, new technologies reach a ‘peak of inflated expectations’ (think the Internet circa 1999) before falling into a ‘trough of disillusionment.’ It's only after these initial overreactions—first too optimistic, then too pessimistic—that public perceptions start to line up with reality.”

After hitting peak hype in late 2017, then veering into a pit of despair in 2018, Lee said 2019 might by the year when the public “will start to develop more realistic expectations for self-driving technology.”

Making Self-Driving Cars a Reality

So the real question is what it’ll take to make that happen. The tolling industry holds many of the answers.

The Times article in June pointed to the “building blocks of autonomy” that are “becoming common on even the most affordable cars: electronic stability controls, certainly, but now radar, cameras and other sensors that perceive their surroundings and automatically accelerate, stop, steer, follow lanes or take evasive action. And every major carmaker in America has pledged to make automated emergency braking standard on all new models by September 2022.”

So there’s no doubt that the elements of autonomous mobility are breaking out all around us, with features becoming routinely available that would once been unimaginable outside the realm of science fiction. The two questions are where to draw the line between hype and real potential, and what it will take to gradually move that line in the direction of greater autonomy.

Which points to two underlying challenges in turn: striking the balance between private sector innovation and public regulation that will steady the development process without impeding it, and finding the business models and centers of expertise that can help the technology advance.

In the United States, the story so far has had the private sector in the lead, with multiple demonstrations under way on many test tracks and some real roads. And one particular branch of the transportation industry stands as an example of the grounded, responsible, disciplined development process that investors will expect as CAVs move into the mainstream.

IBTTA members know full well that the all-electronic tolling systems that many millions of customers can take for granted today were a massive innovation in their time—and that time was within living memory for most of us. The technology developed successfully and well because it was driven by an industry that had the capacity, the insight, and the business imperative to back it up with the engineering, financial, and management acumen it needed to succeed.

With CAVs now moving to a more realistic, productive phase in the hype cycle, those qualities are exactly what it will take to get the latest new technology ready for prime time. And IBTTA members are already stepping up: Transurban announced last month that it was partnering with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the Virginia Transportation Department to test vehicle-to-infrastructure systems on the state’s express lanes, and had previously pointed to managed lane operators as obvious CAV pioneers.

“If you have built your castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now, put a foundation under them.” 19th century U.S. naturalist Henry David Thoreau was certainly not thinking about CAVs, and probably wasn’t thinking about roads, when he wrote those words. But they apply.

Autonomous vehicles will hit the mainstream when their proponents have sweated the details and worked out all the contingencies, just as tolling agencies had to do when the world was new and all-electronic tolling was in its infancy. In other words, 10 to 20 years ago. If our industry’s experience is any indication, they’re in for quite a ride…with lots of opportunities to enjoy the trip.

Membership has its privileges! Click here for all the details from IBTTA’s 2019 Technology Summit, March 30-April 2 in Orlando, Florida.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - 11:15


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