Autonomous vehicles are coming whether we like it or not, folks. But the big question on everyone’s mind seems to be: “When, exactly?”
Depending on where you live, the answer ranges from “They’re already here (technically)!” to “Probably not for a long, long time.” But driverless cars interspersing with regular ol’ human-guided vehicles is effectively an inevitability at this point, especially in and around urban centers.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently moved to redefine its regulations for self-driving cars in order to encourage faster development and greater investment from the private sector. The changes included everything from a call for studies to find out how autonomous vehicles (AVs) will affect American workers to the removal of a human driver as a requirement for a vehicle to operate on U.S. roads. It may not sound like much, but this is a big indication that changes are coming, and fast.
But is the public ready for driverless cars, and when exactly will you be able to ride in, use, or even own one?
Ridesharing Services are Already Going Driverless
Perhaps the question we should be asking about AVs is not “when” but “where” they will first appear. The answer, in fact, is that they’re already in many U.S. cities. Google’s autonomous subdivision, Waymo, has already been testing the technology since early 2009, and currently operates a fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in several locations in Arizona, as well as a driverless Jaguar I-Pace electric vehicle in other cities.
Numerous other companies are developing their tech in cities across the U.S. as well, including several smaller companies like Aptiv in Las Vegas, and global powerhouses like Uber in Pittsburgh (and, infamously, Arizona, where a driverless taxi collided with a pedestrian in a fatal accident in March 2018).
As these tech and ridesharing companies continue to log more autonomous miles through pilot and beta programs, they will inevitably continue to expand their reach, so it could be just a matter of months before driverless taxis reach your city.
What About Personal Vehicles?
Of course, many people in suburban or rural areas may be wondering when this technology will be available for purchase. The answer to that question, unfortunately, is “Not for a while.”
Though many car manufacturers – most notably luxury automakers like Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Cadillac, and Tesla – have started offering semi-autonomous features on their vehicles like enhanced cruise control with steering assist, these companies are still a long way from offering a truly autonomous car for sale to the public.
In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) developed a scale for levels of autonomy in vehicles. This scale ranges from Level 0 (no autonomous features whatsoever) to Level 5 (full autonomy), and most of the available features on current vehicles fall under Level 2, which requires the driver to pay attention at all times when the system is active. While some Level 3 systems are just a vehicle generation away or less, full autonomy in passenger vehicles for sale is still likely up to a decade or more away.
The NHTSA estimates fully autonomous cars will not be a reality until 2025 or later, and though many companies have set more ambitious targets, we’ll all just have to wait and see. Other technologies need to proliferate to make AVs a reality as well, including things like Vehicle-to-X (V2X) tech and more advanced sensors and programs.
Bottom line: the technology of tomorrow won’t necessarily be here tomorrow.