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A leading researcher of autonomous cars says stretch targets announced by various carmakers, predicting when they’ll offer self-driving cars commercially, are unrealistic and unhelpful to the advancing field.

It comes as the RenaultNissanMitsubishi Alliance head of vehicle autonomy clarified mass-market driverless vehicles were a long way off, and encouraged us to ask specific questions on the matter.

Niels de Boer, programme director, Nanyang Technical University centre of excellence for testing and research of autonomous vehicles, Singapore, told us targets for when self-driving cars would be widely available needed to be tempered.

Companies including NissanRenault, Ford and Tesla, have previously claimed they’d roll out advanced autonomous tech at some level by 2021/22 — though these statements have always been light on detail.

Audi already has a Level 3-capable A8 ready to roll, once German regulations allow it – and this is to mention nothing of the Google Waymo program.

“I was once at a forum, not really a tech one, and at this roundtable were business people and automotive people and infrastructure and government, and they asked everyone when will we see autonomous vehicles on the road,” said de Boer.

“And everyone is saying ‘three years, five years, two years’. Then I said 15 years. They said ‘you work in this, how can you be so pessimistic?’ You need to be realistic.

“They make bold statements but they really need to ask ‘what do you mean by autonomous driving, and in what conditions?’

“We [at Nanyang, representing the Singapore government] are targeting bus services in 2022, but read between the lines. They’ll be trialled in certain areas, off-peak hours, they’re proof of concept… a lot of these [targets] are quite unhelpful and overly aggressive.

“Legislation to support it is pretty far away… in Singapore we are very aggressive but we have a very specific use case and even we struggle with the legislation for level 4/5 to get it ready on time.”

Adding to the discussion was Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance senior vice-president of connected vehicles and mobility services, Ogi Redzic.

“Niels answered in a similar way to what I would, because the question itself is not precise, and therefore the answer can never be precise,” he told us.

“Say a 2021 target is the example. What they may be saying is in a little, geofenced area with certain speed and conditions. If you ask generic statements, like when will all cars be driverless? Well of course we are talking about the very distant future.

“But on the road I’d argue you’re seeing this on the road in controlled situations already. We can do this today, no problem.”

He’s referring to this, by the way: Nissan plans self-driving road cars from 2022

“So the question itself needs to be more precise. But commercially, when will we be ready to charge people money for autonomous cars? That’s a good question to ask.”

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