There has been a lot of buzz as of late regarding autonomous cars and the future of the automobile. While Google kick started the conversation with a self-driving Prius that went 300,000 miles without an accident (save for one minor human-driven mishap), automakers around the globe are dog-piling onto the idea. But is the technology really there yet?
Short answer yes, long answer no. Google has already demonstrated its ability to have a computer-controlled car drive hundreds of thousands of miles safely. While it must be unsettling for passengers to let a car drive itself, the technology is certainly there, and in more than one form.
From self-parking cars to long road trains of inter-connected vehicles, autonomous car technology is certainly seeping into the mainstream. But automakers are now telling us that perhaps as soon as 2016, semi-self-driving cars will be available for purchase. GM, Volvo, and Nissan are all sinking considerable resources into developing self-driving cars, and there has been talk of a Google and Tesla tie-up that could include an autonomous model. A report by ABI Research suggest that as soon as 2020, self-driving cars will be on sale, and that by 2032 10 million self-driving cars could be built every year.
And yet for all this talk, it reminds me a lot of the constant promise of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which are also set to debut sometime in the next decade. Toyota and GM have both pledged to sell fuel-cell vehicles by the end of 2016, but they say little about expected sales or costs, with Toyota casting a wide net of between $50,000 and $100,000. It seems automakers have been talking about the technology as though it is right around the corner for years, and yet it never quite gets there.
In fact, the promise of fully-automated automobiles is even older than the allure of hydrogen cars, and the public has paid varying degrees of attention to the developing technology. In today’s increasingly convenient world, driving is one of the few activities that has yet to be automated, and a number of factions are vying to corner the market on self-driving car technology.
But for all the talk of self-driving cars, there is good reason to believe such technology is still a decade or more from going mainstream. Even if self-driving cars that can utilize today’s infrastructure are built, much of the technology is prohibitively expensive; Google’s self-driving Prius each cost between $75,000 and $150,000 to convert, though other developers have built systems as cheap as $4,500. Nevermind the fact that the cars require massive and hideous structures to contain all automating technology.
If it isn’t cost that stalls self-driving cars, it could be litigation and law. Who is to blame for a self-driving car accident? What happens if these systems fail? Will self-driving cars be legally limited to highway speeds, or can we dial in our own speed? Congress tends to drag its feet even on the nation’s most pressing issues; convincing our representatives to pass speedy and meaningful legislation regarding automated cars could take awhile, even with aggressive lobbying. That said, some states have already taken up the issue.
Self-driving cars will arrive, one day or another. I don’t doubt that. But I think the technology is still a lot further out than some analysts are predicting or hoping.
Images: Volvo | Steve Jurvetson