Yes, it’s true: The promise of self-driving cars zooming around while their human operators doze off, read, or watch movies is not quite here yet.
But who said that had to happen right now or we’ve missed our chance at driverless vehicles forever? On Monday, The Outline published an article titled “The self-driving car that will never arrive,” calling self-driving cars “delusional” and part of “our grossest capitalistic dreams.” It’s just the latest from those who believe driverless cars and other artificial intelligence innovations are an unrealistic pipe dream.
But innovation happens incrementally, step by step. Just because it’s not instantaneous doesn’t mean it will never happen.
And things are happening. Right now, clunky, top-heavy sensor- and camera-loaded vehicles are carefully driving around sunny, wide boulevards of Phoenix, Arizona, or geo-fenced areas of Frisco, Texas, or highly controllable senior living communities in Florida and San Jose. Admittedly, fatal mistakes are a huge, tragic problem that set back the entire industry. But that’s not the end of the line for self-driving advancements.
Waymo is leading the charge here, clocking in 8 million self-driven miles and gearing up for a truly driverless taxi service. It’s been driving around “early riders,” like this Phoenix family, and showing how driverless can work in a world still filled with traditional vehicles. Sure, we’re given access to Waymo’s progress to whet our appetites about what could be, to keep the hope alive about a driverless future. But it’s not entirely baseless.
Lyft’s partnership with Aptiv just hit 5,000 rides in their commercial self-driving program in Las Vegas, where they charge users for a self-driven ride with a safety driver and operator up front.
Autonomous shuttle services in what The Outline reduced to a “carnival ride” — cordoned-off, safe, predictable areas — are ramping up. It’s not a futuristic utopia, but this is how we get there.
It’s so much easier to test and put this tech on the roads that way. The soon-to-launch Waymo taxi service is a more complex version of those self-contained obstacle courses.
Ford’s self-driving report out last week clearly laid out plans to start offering vehicles for ride-hailing and delivery services in 2021. GM’s Cruise similarly has not-too-soon-but-still-coming-up deadlines. And remember, this isn’t even for mainstream use.
No researcher, academic, or even “greedy” company spokesperson or executive I’ve talked with has ever predicted everyday consumer use of self-driving cars coming any time soon. But, “I have little doubt that self-driving cars are going to happen,” Washington University in St. Louis computer science and engineering professor Sanjoy Baruah told me last month. It’s just a matter of which company will do it first.
Startups and researchers are well aware they’re operating vehicles mainly on highways without the complexities of urban areas and other environments. Situations in downtown Manhattan or snowy Buffalo, New York, make it way too difficult to implement globally. We’re not there yet. We’re seeing the first uses of self-driving in taxi and fleet services. These are very much controlled by the companies themselves; no regular driver is given keys to this expensive equipment and told to drive safely.
That’s what we need to reach a new way of moving around. We’re allowed to aspire and dream big. It’s not delusional even if those aspirations are recalibrated along the way. It happens.
We’ve already got a bevy of semi-autonomous features to help society understand and accept how this tech could eventually work. Eventually.
A Cox Automotive survey of more than 1,250 Americans released last week found that consumers want autonomous features in their cars. Collision avoidance, lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control, and parking assistance all were considered highly desirable.
So while almost 50 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t ever buy a driverless Level 5 autonomous vehicle, the appeal of Level 2 — essentially what Tesla’s Autopilot already offers — is up 9 percent from a 2016 survey.
Just like the naysayers of yore poo-pooing the rise of the internet, the self-driving skeptics are going to look silly as they desperately hold onto their human-controlled steering wheels. Eventually. This takes time.