By Lambert Strether of
Usage note: I’m going to start saying “robot cars,” instead of “self-driving cars” (they don’t have selves), or “autonomous vehicles” (it’s too long to type, and anyhow “auto” implies a self, too. I guess we’ve had this category error for some time, come to think of it). And by “robot car,” I mean a fully autonomous Level 5 vehicle.
Let’s start by quoting (which I’ve helpfully annotated):
Governor Cuomo Announces Cruise Automation Applying to Begin First Fully Autonomous Vehicle Testing in New York State
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced General Motors and Cruise Automation are applying to begin the first sustained testing of vehicles in  mode in New York State in early 2018. Through Governor Cuomo’s recent legislation allowing the testing of autonomous technology, GM and Cruise are applying to begin testing in Manhattan, where mapping has begun in a  area. All testing will include …. Cruise’s planned testing would be the first time  vehicles will be tested in New York State…
At  and  we get some detail that would indicates that the testing is going to be carefully circumscribed, so the autonomy is for some definition of “fully.” However,  and  are contradictory: “Fully autonomous” robot cars are, in the jargon of the field, “Level 5,” not “Level 4”, as we explained here. In lay terms:
From Dr. Steve Shladover of Berkeley’s Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology:
[High Automation]: [Level 4] has multiple layers of capability, and it could allow the driver to, for example, fall asleep while driving on the highway for a long distance trip…
That could also be a low-speed shuttle that would operate within a confined area, like a retirement community or a resort or shopping complex, where the interactions with other vehicles might be limited so that that helps keep it safe.
[Full Automation]: Level 5 is where you get to the automated taxi that can pick you up from any origin or take you to any destination… If you’re in a car sharing mode of operation, you want to reposition a vehicle to where somebody needs it. That needs Level 5.
Level 5 is really, really hard.
And , amazingly enough, provides better coverage than all the stories I am about to look at, including a chart with a more technical definitino of the levels:
Level Four – The system can cope will all situations automatically within defined use [for some defintion of “defined use” –lambert] but it may not be able to cope will all weather or road conditions. System will rely on high definition mapping
. System can cope with all weather, traffic and lighting conditions. It can go anywhere, at any time in any conditions
Furthermore, GM’s Cruise Automation hasn’t even developed Level 5 software. (.) Fully autonomous, despite a lot of wishful thinking means just that: “Fully.” “Autonomous.” It doesn’t mean “autonomous only in some areas and with a human in the loop.” Fully autonomous = Level 5 ≠ Level 4. So Cuomo’s press release is deceptive.
* * *
Now let’s look at how some major journalistic enterprises covered the story. We’ll see that most of them fell for Cuomo’s intitial “fully autonomous,” and didn’t read on to see “Level 4.” Some of them also add interesting details that aren’t in the press release, or in other stories.
GM to test self-driving cars in N.Y. in early 2018: Gov. Cuomo
General Motors Co (GM.N) plans to test vehicles in mode in New York state in early 2018, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The planned testing by GM and its self-driving unit, Cruise Automation, will be the first by a autonomous vehicle in the state, Cuomo said in a statement.
Reuters, to its credit, read Cuomo’s whole press release, and mentions both “fully autonomous” and “Level 4,” but without noticing they contradict each other.
General Motors to test self-driving cars in New York City
The Detroit-based automaker, whose shares have risen 25 per cent in recent weeks on investor expectations that it could beat rivals to the introduction of a mass market autonomous vehicle service, will test Chevrolet Bolt electric cars in its most complex market so far: lower Manhattan.
The Financial Times falls for “fully autonomous,” and doesn’t mention “Level” anywhere in the story. Careless. Also, the hard problem is not Manhattan as a “complex market,” but Manhattan as a complex streetscape; exactly the sort of category error one would expect an organ like the FT — much as I love the pink paper — to make.
GM to Test Fleet of Self-Driving Cars in New York — Update
GM will deploy a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt electric cars early next year in a 5-square-mile section of lower Manhattan that engineers are mapping, said Kyle Vogt, chief executive of Cruise Automation, the -car developer GM acquired last year…. [Manhattan, like San Francisco] offers a congested environment with a high concentration of hairy situations that cars must learn to navigate.
Dow Jones, like the FT, doesn’t mention levels at all, emitting instead vague terms like “self-driving” and “driverless,” and implying, without actually saying, that the Chevy Bolts will be “fully automated” (as opposed to “autonomous.” They do pick up, however, that GM’s testing will take place in a 5-square-mile area, which GM is mapping. (Existing maps won’t do, then?)
Cars Could Come to Manhattan
The trials will include two passengers: an engineer sitting behind the wheel to monitor and evaluate performance, and a second person in the passenger seat, according to the governor’s announcement.
The New York Times doesn’t get into Levels either — I guess they didn’t read that far down in the press release, although, to their credit, they did interview some cab drivers. Like Dow Jones, they equivocate with “driverless” and “self-driving” (though I suppose we could get into the semantics of what “self-driving” can mean with two people in the car who one of whom is an engineer).
General Motors will operate a handful of Chevy Bolts within a five-square-mile area in lower Manhattan for at least a year to test the technology.
The legislation also requires state police escorts to accompany the test cars, but how that’s implemented is still being worked out. Each car being tested in New York must also have a $5 million insurance policy.
Like Dow Jones and The Times, Recode doesn’t get into levels. Unlike them, it further qualifies the already qualified “driverless” with “semi” (because of the engineer behind the wheel, I suppose). The detail on the state police escort (!) and the five million insurance policy per car is not in the press release, however, or any other story I read, so kudos.
GM will be the first company to test in New York City
Cruise Automation, the self-driving unit of General Motors, announced today that it will test its Chevy Bolts in one of the most torturously congested cities in the world: New York City. According to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the company will be the first to test Level 4 autonomous vehicles in the state.
To its credit, the Verge mentions “Level 4,” and does not say fully autonomous, unlike Cuomo. (And most of Manhattan is a grid;
it may be torture, but it is not tortuous.)
General Motors PAC donated $17G to Cuomo months before picked to test in New York
The company will be the first to test vehicles in the state, Cuomo’s office said Tuesday.
I know robot cars are seen as a technological inevitability, so why spend time on the story? But what we’re seeing is a test taking place in a five-square-mile area that has yet to be mapped, in a “Level 4” vehicle that is not “fully autonomous,” at least as the Society of Automotive Engineers defines the term, with an engineer behind the wheel, a passenger with carefully undefined duties, trailed by a police car, and with a five million dollar insurance policy. Frankly, this is an impressive enough technical achievement without going all giddy. Is it really too much to ask our famously free press to read beyond the press release and get the basics right?
 The lead: “Pity the poor taxi drivers. First came Uber, now comes no one.” Paging Thomas Frank!
 Of course.
 And how come GM gets to pick its own test area, anyhow?