Autonomous cars are supposed to be just around the corner, right? Well, not exactly. Every year, car companies flock to CES and the North American International Auto Show in Detroitto show off their cool self-driving car concepts. This year was no different, with a plethora of weird wheels from Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, and others making their debut. And while cars are undoubtedly getting smarter and the technology is getting better and better, the day that you’ll be able to buy a self-driving car, or even ride in one, is a lot further away than you probably think.
It’s 2018. Where are we in the world of autonomous vehicles? The big takeaway from CES and Detroit this year is that automakers and tech companies have, for the most part, stopped demonstrating their self-driving technology and started talking about how these cars are going to be used and make money. That’s a pretty big deal, and it will probably lead to a lot of people thinking that they could start seeing driverless cars rolling down Main Street any day now.
That’s ridiculous. Americans are still addicted to giant gas-guzzlers, and with gas prices so low, who can blame them? Sure, car companies are talking more and more about autonomy, mobility, and smart cities, but it’s the Ford F150s and Chevy Silverados that make the money.
Self-driving cars can’t compete until they start to turn a profit, and that won’t happen until we start seeing more than just few hundred of them on the road at a time. Right now, there are self-driving cars that are picking up and dropping off regular people in just a few cities like Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Boston. We’re definitely going to see these limited experiments spread to more locations in 2018 and 2019, and by 2020, we’re going to start to see some of the first autonomous cars without traditional controls like steering wheels and foot pedals hit the streets. That’s going to be pretty momentous — but again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
For at least the next five to 10 years, self-driving cars will be geofenced to specific areas, meaning they won’t be free-range vehicles that can go wherever, whenever. They’ll be constrained to densely populated urban centers, college campuses, or retirement communities. That’s because of safety, but also because the technology isn’t really good enough to allow them to travel unrestricted. Autonomous cars need loads of data before they can confidently prowl the streets, and data takes time to collect.
How will they be used? Mostly ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, delivery services like Ford’s experiment with Domino’s Pizza, and multi-passenger driverless shuttle services like Navya and Keolis’ service in Las Vegas. For the first few years, only a fraction of the population will have the opportunity to ride in these vehicles.
While that is happening, the cars we drive every day are going to get smarter. We already have cars with highly advanced driver-assistance features like Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot, which allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel and feet off the pedals. (Think of them as really powerful versions of cruise control.) They’ll start out as pricey options on luxury vehicles, but the hope is that soon enough, they’ll find their way into more mass-market, affordable cars. After all, it would really suck if this life-saving technology was only available to rich people. And semi-autonomous systems are going to help pave the way for fully driverless cars. As people get more comfortable relinquishing control, the idea of robot cars becomes way less scary.
If you think you’ll be able to waltz down to your local dealership and plunk down money for a self-driving car, you’ll be disappointed, however. The sensor suite that allows these cars to “see” their environment, combined with the compute hardware eating up a lot of space in the trunk, are really, really expensive. Most automakers are operating under the assumption that autonomous cars won’t be sold as personal vehicles, but instead will be used as part of a service fleet.
At CES and Detroit this year, auto executives stopped talking about self-driving cars as if they were just two years away. That’s probably smart, and it may help cool down some of the insane rhetoric surrounding this technology. Cars are an integral and dangerous part of our society, and it doesn’t hurt to approach this enormous change a bit more conservatively. Look, I want self-driving cars as much as anyone. Fewer accidents, fewer cars, less traffic, I love these ideas. But we’re still a long way away from getting there, even if we’re just now starting to see what this technology can do.