Despite high hopes, self-driving cars are ‘way in the future’

A year ago, Detroit and Silicon Valley had visions of putting thousands of self-driving taxis on the road in 2019, ushering in an age of driverless cars.

Most of those cars have yet to arrive — and it is likely to be years before they do. Several carmakers and technology companies have concluded that making autonomous vehicles is going to be harder, slower and costlier than they thought.

“We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Ford’s chief executive, Jim Hackett, said at the Detroit Economic Club in April.

In the most recent sign of the scramble to regroup, Ford and Volkswagen said Friday that they were teaming up to tackle the self-driving challenge.

The two automakers plan to use autonomous-vehicle technology from a Pittsburgh startup, Argo AI, in ride-sharing services in a few urban zones as early as 2021. But Argo’s chief executive, Bryan Salesky, said the industry’s bigger promise of creating driverless cars that could go anywhere was “way in the future.”

He and others attribute the delay to something as obvious as it is stubborn: human behavior.

Researchers at Argo say the cars they are testing in Pittsburgh and Miami have to navigate unexpected situations every day. Recently, one of the company’s cars encountered a bicyclist riding the wrong way down a busy street between other vehicles. Another Argo test car came across a street sweeper that suddenly turned a giant circle in an intersection, touching all four corners and crossing lanes of traffic that had the green light.

“You see all kinds of crazy things on the road, and it turns out they’re not all that infrequent; you have to be able to handle all of them,” Salesky said. “With radar and high-resolution cameras and all the computing power we have, we can detect and…