Autonomous Vehicles: When Will They Truly Arrive?

We’ve been hearing buzz about autonomous cars for almost a century now, with the dreams of a self-driving car for everyday use showing up in fictional accounts of the future in the 1930’s. As we saw the promises of other once far-fetched inventions come to fruition, we’ve continued to wait for the reality of an autonomous vehicle. Each year it seems that we are given more exciting updates about the encroaching arrival of truly autonomous vehicles on our streets, but so far test vehicles have yet to give way to a functioning consumer product. 

To understand the seeming delay in the arrival of autonomous vehicles, it’s important to consider some of the challenges that this technology faces. As Computer History Museum reports, advancements for vehicles of far more exotic terrains than our everyday streets have seen technological progress. Autonomous vehicles have made their way through oceans, the sky, and even across the surface of Mars. It might seem surprising that the technology does not immediately translate to the streets we travel every day, but our network of transport pathways are complex and full of surprises. Our streets are used by pedestrians and come into close proximity to homes and businesses. They can be filled with inattentive children, pets, and other vehicles that don’t always follow the rules of the road. Designing a vehicle that can autonomously navigate all of these unexpected challenges is a technological conundrum. 

Still, the technology itself has seen vast improvements over the last few years. In November of 2017, Waymo (the product of Google’s multi-year journey into self-driving technology) launched unmanned test vehicles into the Phoenix, Arizona area. Now Waymo, GM, and Tesla are all vying to deliver a consumer-ready autonomous vehicle as soon as the end of 2017 (with 2019 being a more common estimate). With test vehicles and flashy models on showroom floors, surely we can finally say that autonomous vehicles are just around the corner, right? 

Not so fast. The technology of self-driving cars is only one aspect of making their daily use a reality. The logistics, costs, legal barriers, and ethical ramifications are all throwing speed bumps into the race to be the first autonomous car on the freeway. 

Logistically, self-driving cars require a lot of interworking pieces to all function seamlessly. As Wired reports, the excitement of autonomous vehicles becoming a reality through testable models quickly gave way to the difficulties of the task at hand. In particular, engineers are struggling to craft and implement sensors that adequately observe and create meaning from the surrounding environment. A fully-functional autonomous vehicle needs to take in visual and audio cues and then interpret them in a way that makes predictive guesses about the often-erratic behavior of people. 

Another barrier mentioned in the Wired article is the cost. Even relatively wealthy consumers will be unlikely to afford the emerging technology while it is in its newest stages, and the first autonomous vehicles will likely be very finicky when it comes to functional requirements. They’ll need ideal weather and road conditions to be usable, and it’s unlikely that many consumers will be willing to accept the expensive price tag for what would amount to an occasional joyride. 

Legally, many states are not currently set up to accept autonomous vehicles on the roads. While the House passed bipartisan legislation in September 2017 that made it easier to test autonomous vehicles, individual states still have to figure out the licensing, insurance, and other legal challenges. Some states, such as Illinois and Ohio, have started to make room for autonomous vehicles, but it will take a broader, more widespread effort across the country to get legislation where it needs to be for a true revolution. 

Finally, there are ethical concerns with autonomous vehicles that have yet to be addressed. Laws are created to address issues that we have already encountered, but technology as novel as autonomous vehicles will likely bring up moral and ethical quandaries that we have not yet faced. In these cases, we will find ourselves retroactively trying to adjust the settings on our vehicles or updating our laws (and possibly our own sense of right and wrong) in response. 

Even with all of these hoops left to jump, the economic benefits, safety implications, and simple awe-factor of autonomous vehicles suggest that they’ll arrive sooner rather than later. Even once the first consumer-ready products hit the road, though, we can expect a slower rollout as cost adjusts over time and more fine-tuning is done to create a product that people will see as reaching the value threshold.

We can expect to see a clearer picture emerge over the next several months, so buckle up!