They’ve become one of the news media’s favorite bogeymen whenever changes to the economy are brought up, and for good reason. A lot of people work in the transportation industry, and most of them would lose their jobs if that industry were taken over by self-driving cars – either replaced entirely or suddenly faced with such a drastic change in required skills and responsibilities that they’d have no choice but to change careers. At the same time, there are those who stand to gain quite a bit as a result of the automation of a previously very human-based business. Fleet Management, for instance, would benefit greatly from increased reliability and instantaneous accessibility provided by a centrally-controlled network of autonomous vehicles. It’s also a great-looking investment, sure to help boost the stock of whichever company can be the first to roll out a fleet of self-driving cars.
There are other reasons why companies seem so intent on racing headfirst into the autonomous future of automobiles. They’re a great luxury item; imagine being able to sit back and work on a presentation, read and answer emails, or even watch a movie while your car drives you to your destination. The possibilities are practically endless. In some of the most congested metropolitan areas in the world, drivers will spend entire weeks out of every year stuck in traffic, commuting to and from their destinations. With a self-driving car you could wait until you’re already on the road to start working on your presentation for the morning meeting. They could also be a boon to public safety and even cut down on emissions, as many drivers (especially those in heavy traffic) favor an “accelerate and then break hard” model of driving that’s bad for fuel efficiency and wears down the car itself.
In any case, many would have you believe that the autonomous vehicles are practically days away, with companies eager to throw a journalist in the driver’s seat (or passenger, given that many autonomous cars still need a human to take over occasionally in heavy traffic and unpredictable situations). But the reality is that self-driving cars won’t be here any time soon. In fact, it may be a very long time indeed before we see truly autonomous cars taking up any significant amount of space on the road.
Why might that be? A good place to start is to look at the old cliché of the flying car. We certainly have the technology to make it possible, and yet the skies are still occupied solely by airplanes, birds, and Amazon delivery drones. The reason has a lot more to do with zoning and traffic laws than the technology itself.
For instance, it turns out that most people really don’t like driverless cars. Like those Japanese trade-show robots that imitate real humans, people seem to appreciate the idea while being generally averse to the actual reality. Even the number of people that expect to see autonomous vehicles in the next decade has dropped sharply.
People who tend to be skeptical of surveys will be humbled to discover that there are plenty of real life examples of people publicly showing their opinions about driverless cars. Self-driving Uber cars have experienced a spate of what can only be described as ‘bullying,’ with people throwing rude gestures, driving aggressively, and generally testing the limits of how mean they can be to the poor, thoughtless machines. Even pedestrians have antagonized them. While it’s true that drivers (especially in some areas) can be overly aggressive towards other human beings, it’s undeniable that driverless cars are being singled out in these instances.
Returning to the comparison with our hypothetical flying car, there is one other major difference: in the case of autonomous ground-based vehicles, it turns out technology actually is a massive limiting factor in its own right. Self-driving cars can use maps to follow roads, but there are growing lists of situations and factors that can confuse the cars and prevent them from driving effectively. Everything from weather, darkness and pedestrians to potholes and human-driven cars (of which there are, predictably, quite a few on the roads) can make autonomous cars practically useless.
Even without these clearly significant limiting factors, the trailblazing companies pushing the limits of self-driving technology appear to be stumbling about with no real long-term vision, sometimes likened to middle school children at a dance. Many companies are partnering with other companies to get their programs off the ground, resulting in a fragmentation that tends to hinder progress. And even when they figure out how to collaborate effectively, these companies will have to clear the hurdle of many different conflicting and entrenched state and local laws that will make implementing fleets of driverless vehicles a massive headache, potentially even impossible.
That being said, autonomous cars will certainly be here eventually – it’s just too attractive an accomplishment, like going to the moon, even if only to beat out the competition – but it turns out ‘eventually’ could turn out to be quite a long time indeed.