vehicles with self-driving capabilities could mean a significantly
higher share of total travel.
To top it all off, the track record of self-driving cars in limited
tests has been exemplary. Consider that in October, General
Motors and its Cruise self-driving unit reported 13 total crashes
that month across its testing fleet of 100[ 10] autonomous cars—with
all of the incidents indicating the autonomous technology was not
at fault. Most involved impatient drivers rear-ending slowing GM
cars as they approached a stop sign or a pedestrian in a crosswalk,
and a few others involved everything from distracted drivers on
cellphones to a drunk on a bicycle running into a Chevy Bolt that
wasn’t even moving.
“All our incidents this year were caused by the other vehicle,”
Rebecca Mark, a spokeswoman for Cruise, told Reuters in a
recent article.[ 11]
Theoretically, the technology pipeline could fall apart. For
instance, automakers have been plowing capital into research
and development after back-to-back records for U.S. auto sales
in both 2015 and 2016,[ 12] and leaner
times may necessarily result in less
funding for these long-term efforts.
And of course, a high-profile crash
could create new political roadblocks
or chill consumer perceptions of autonomous vehicles.
But at present course and speed,
manufacturers and regulators alike are
rapidly moving toward a future where
autonomous vehicles are the norm on
Where Do Autonomous
Vehicles Go From Here?
The potential impact of self-driving cars
is clear, but big questions remain about
how quickly automakers will force the issue—and how quickly
their customers will sign on.
Not to mention, of course, the willingness of lawmakers and
regulators to facilitate either trend.
Automakers Target 2020
Electric car manufacturer Tesla is well-known for its Autopilot
autonomous technology, and its brash CEO Elon Musk has pre-
dicted we are only about two years away from a car you could
sleep in while it drives itself.[ 13]
That may sound like the posturing of a hard-charging tech
executive, but it actually mirrors the timeline targeted by more
conventional automakers. Honda has said it expects to deploy
Honda driverless taxis at the 2020 Olympics in its native Japan[ 14]
and aims to have fully autonomous personal cars on the market
by 2025. Toyota[ 15] and Hyundai[ 16] have also targeted 2020 as
the date that their Level 4 driverless technology—that is, high
automation that doesn’t require any human intervention—will
be publicly available.
Logistics Operations Are Likely to Lead
Honda’s 2020 goal for driverless taxis is noteworthy not just because
it’s two short years away, but because it stresses a business-use
case. The potential for self-driving vehicles will likely first be
fully realized in a logistics setting, not by individual consumers
commuting to the office in a personal vehicle.
To that end, European truck giant Volvo has already deployed
a self-driving trash truck in Sweden[ 17] with aims to better serve
urban areas thanks to added safety features. In America, Ford
Motor Company has teamed up with Domino’s to test[ 18] self-driving pizza delivery cars in Michigan (though there will still
be a human behind the wheel).
A mass market for autonomous vehicles is still many years
away. But businesses will be all too eager to lead the charge as early
adopters to increase safety and reduce logistical costs.
Policies Welcome a Self-driving Future
Adoption of self-driving vehicles has occurred without too many
speedbumps. That seems like a trend
that could persist, especially after a
recent bill known as the AV Start Act
(S. 1885) received unanimous approval[ 19] in late November from the U.S.
Senate Committee on Commerce,
Science and Transportation.
The bill would allow companies
to produce up to 15,000 autono-mous-only vehicles, then raise the
cap to 80,000 in three years and remove the total cap altogether after
four years. Noticeably absent from
the bill is a federal requirement for
human control as a fallback.
That’s an encouraging glide path
for the technology, even if new legal challenges and political pressures are certain to emerge
Obviously, There Will Be More Uncertainty Ahead
As with all technology, of course, there are likely issues that will
appear that haven’t been anticipated or fully appreciated.
For instance, the rise of mobile technology is widely attributed to a small uptick in traffic fatalities in 2016 compared
with 2015,[ 20] as distracted drivers check their smartphones
while driving instead of checking their mirrors. Surely when
smartphones began going mainstream 10 years ago this wasn’t
an issue on the minds of tech companies or regulators, but it is
indeed on their radar now.
One potential area of trouble may be the idea of ethical controls
for self-driving cars, with one German organization stressing that
it’s important to set priorities that give preference to human life
over animals or property.[ 21] If the car is in charge, what decisions
will it have to make—and who will be held accountable if those
decisions hurt someone?
Those most likely to be
resistant to self-driving
technology are the oldest
Americans, who will
age out of the driving
population before we
have to worry about them