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The Sobering Reality of Self-Driving Cars

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Self-Driving Cars in the Not-So-Near Future

    Fully self-driving cars, with the capabilities to think like humans do, are a distant reality, an expert says. Mekahlo Medina reports for the NBC4 News at Noon on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (Published Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016)

    It was bound to happen - the buzz had to wear off soon enough. Reality of the self-driving car just set in at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

    Dr. Gill Pratt, the new CEO of Toyota Research Institute, soberly delivered the blow while on the Toyota stage at CES.

    "Cars are basically driving the way we drive," Pratt said.

    While some car companies predict self-driving cars to hit the market by 2019 or 2020, Pratt told the crowd a true autonomous car, no human involvement whatsoever, is a very long way off.

    "Most of what we have collectively accomplished with intelligent cars to date has been relatively easy because most driving is relatively easy," Pratt told NBC4. "Where we need to help is not where driving is easy. We need to solve driving when it's hard. Toyota Research Unit intends to address the hard part."

    Baby Steps

    The technology is still in its infancy, said Pratt. Sure, self-driving cars can detect other cars, stop when it senses another car, but the technology can't yet do what humans can do when they drive - react different to sometimes unknown situations.

    Toyota wants the baby tech to grow up. It has invested $1 billion into research labs that snagged top talent from Google to focus on artificial intelligence and robots. One of labs will be at Stanford Research Park in Northern California and the other will be near MIT.

    Pratt wants to get through the terrible twos and jump right into adolescence of the technology.

    "We need to have the technology react to things like construction zones, sudden objects crossing into traffic in a way that humans would think it is a reasonable thing to do," he said.

    Tech Daddy

    Pratt is the best father to guide the technology's growth. He used to run DARPA's Robotics Challenge. DARPA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.

    Like any good father figure, Pratt won't put unrealistic expectations on when the totally autonomous car will replace humans from taking full control of the wheel. He knows the technology will grow up and when it does he wants it to be its best and the safest it can be.

    James Kuffner, who used head Google's robotics division and is now on day three of his new job with Pratt, says raising self-driving car technology will come with patience and in stages.

    "It is an evolution," he said. "There is a continuous spectrum between full manual control and full autonomous control, and there's going to be phased deployments."

    Correction: A misspelling of Gill Pratt's name appeared in an earlier version of this article.