Progress toward Autonomous Vehicles So Far:
2016 Qualcomm’s purchased NXP Semiconductors for it’s chip tech for AVs ($39 billion)
2017 Intel purchased Mobileye for its AV sensors ($15 billion)
2017 GM purchased Cruise Automation for AV tech patents ($1 billion)
Predictions about when we can expect them, range from as early as 2019 (Morgan Stanly) to 2032 (ABI Research). The National Highway Trafic Safety Administration predicts 2025. However, there’s a big push to make it by 2020: NuTonomy, Ford, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen. Uber ex-CEO said 2030.
The reason its become such a holy grail is based on a prediction that they’ll be more reliable than humans at driving safely, and allow more cars on the road per mile, traveling faster, which equates to less need to expand or improve infrastructure.
Critics point out that while AI’s might drive more consistently that doesn’t always equate to safer, and of course if you need to spend a bunch of money to say, equip every bridge, crosswalk, and road sign with a transmitter broadcasting don’t hit me, that negates the savings on infrastructure.
There’s often a disparity between the potential a new technology represents and how the market responds. Look no further than Electric Powered Vehicles (EVs). President Obama predicted one million EVs driven by 2016 and missed it by 700,000. Look at the initial launch of the personal computer. A lot of Apple 2e’s sat next to kitchens being the world’s most expensive Rolodex/recipe holder until the internet came along and gave them purpose.
And who do we hold responsible when a crash does happen? The car owner or the programmer that created the algorithm that told the car it’s okay to run over your poodle if it avoids a 27% chance of concussing a passenger? States like Oregon require an attendant to pump your gas for you in order to create jobs. Will the threat of mass professional driver layoffs cause legislature to throttle the spread of AV’s? What happens when some states okay AVs and others don’t. I private owner/driver can simply engage or disengage the feature during travel, but if you’re a package delivery service trying to save money paying CDL drivers for long haul, do you drive around certain states in order to use driver-less trucks?
What about mapping every square inch of the US? Most people assume that navigation has been on the market long enough that virtually everywhere is mapped. But companies like Uber are buying whole other companies for their mapping data. Not how they map but the maps themselves. Road’s change, constantly and we don’t need AVs driving through a building that used to be a road or going the wrong way on a one way street because its maps are 6 months out of date.
Take for example a simple thing. GPS navigation will take you to the front door of a local restaurant where you can get out and walk in. Except that the restaurant has it’s front door on the street instead of the parking lot. So the car will stop in traffic for you to exit because it’s at it’s destination. What happens when a teenage girl hails a ride from a rides hare company and the GPS puts the car in the alley behind her apartment complex? When she walks to meet it and is attacked is the ride share company going to compensate her?
These aren’t hurtles that can never be overcome, but when a programmer says he’s six months from producing a program that doesn’t mean your seven months from seeing it on store shelves. A lot has to happen in a lot of areas a programmer wouldn’t think about because it’s not his/her responsibility.
Another similarity to electric vehicles is that what makes sense in one setting doesn’t in another. Dense populations in highly developed areas may be early adapters to EVs and AVs where they’d be less attractive in rural Texas (for example). When a technology executive does an interview and says we’re only a year away from having AVs roaming the road around you ask yourself if she’s more intimately familiar with the programming capabilities than the legal implications and if she more likely lives in a dense urban area or a ranch in Montana. Could there be some paradigm blindness going on?
Perhaps one of the most telling indicators is a 2016 Kelly Blue Book Survey. Among EV owners only 53% said they’d re-buy the same car (31% if it only plugged in) compared to traditional engine vehicles where 82% would re-buy. 74% of Americans surveyed felt that AVs weren’t safe. Think about that. Imagine for a second that three out of four people felt you were less likely to die from a crash if you didn’t wear a seat belt. That’s a significant PR problem for companies that hope to sell $7 trillion worth of these cars.
Here’s an aspect seldom covered when pondering the topic, you can’t buy a new car today for less than $8,000 because in part that’s the cost of building it to modern safety standards. Even if the law requires cars be able to drive themselves how much more will people pay for the feature? We actually have some data on this. The Tesla model 3 sells for $10,000 more than cars in it’s class. Certainly Tesla has showed they can sell cars, but Tesla has more going for it than just autonomous driving and it’s not a Traditional Automotive Manufacturer. So you can’t get an apples to apples comparison to establish what consumers are willing to pay $10,000 more for. When surveyed directly they report that their willingness to pay more for automation has dropped by a 30% since 2014 and that they don’t trust Original manufacturers to provide safe AVs to market.
So while most writers on this topic are defending the position that they can get a car to drive itself by a certain date, there remains some doubt as to it’s market viability.