I want proof that driverless cars will actually save lives. For now, all we're going to get is some close-ups of LeBron James riding in a staged demo car.

You can watch the commercial yourself below, but pay attention to a few key details.

First, the car is not production ready--there are no emblems from Ford or even Kia (his sponsor). How about showing an actual car that exists like the ones Google or Uber use? It was produced by Intel, a company that wants to convince you that autonomous cars are safe and will reduce accidents, which is fine--but the ad was staged. You don't see any other cars, and you don't see any split decisions to avoid problems.

In a statement, Intel told me:

"The LeBron campaign was filmed by using an actual car on the streets of Los Angeles, California. We were constrained on California required permits and some of the footage was shot without fully autonomous capabilities. We intend to give LeBron a fully autonomous ride as soon as his schedules allow."

Here's the ad so you can make up your own mind:


The ad doesn't really assure me, and I'm someone who has ridden in multiple driverless cars, including an early prototype at Stanford, one piloted by the cofounder of Cruise Automation, and a couple of them at CES this year in Las Vegas.

In every case, there was a human driver behind the wheel, making sure things did not go awry. And they have on several occasions. With Cruise, the car almost hit a Ford Mustang. At CES, the car was going to slide into another car but the human driver took the controls. My smoothest test ride was actually in an Audi on a racetrack once.

There are hundreds if not thousands of variables a car must analyze when driving autonomously. Weather conditions, the position of other cars, the relative speed, the curve in the road. It's mind-boggling, but not impossible, for a computer to figure it all out. In fact, the sensors are in theory capable of looking at all directions at once at all times.

Which is to say--I'm all for this working out. I see a future where driverless cars become the norm, but mostly on dedicated highways at first, all in a row in a single lane. They might drive around in closed urban locations where there are guardrails and no pedestrians.

What makes me irritated about the ad is that it takes few risks (if any). How about showing an actual autonomous car with James inside, maybe on a closed course but with other cars around? At lower speeds, if there's an accident, James would be fine.

But the truth? James really does look slightly panicked at first--a typical reaction we all have. But overall there isn't any real sense of danger and the technology never has to make any split decisions in traffic or to avoid someone in the road.

During my tests, I felt a pang of regret for even agreeing to being carted around like that in the first place, even with a human driver as a backup. The most important reason the test with James looks fake is that there isn't a human driver, which is pretty much what will happen with every Uber or Google (and sister company Waymo) test happening now.

I'm looking forward to seeing real driverless cars on the road soon. Not this.

Published on: Oct 10, 2017