Well obviously it depends on who you ask. And it depends on what you mean by “driverless!” As stated in this Wall Street Journal article headline, the “self-driving hype doesn’t reflect reality.” Over the last year, we have seen the auto makers and technology developers with countless headline-grabbing announcements around their number of miles tested, company partnerships and purchases, and first-time implementations. Many automakers and technology developers have promised fully automated vehicles in the next few years….and we are seeing driverless vehicle pilots happening around the world (see my blog post on experiencing a ride in one of these pilots!), so they must be coming soon, right?!
I believe the two key questions that all headline-grabbing, driverless companies should be asked to get at the heart of the issue are:
- What level of automation are you expecting to have available in the next few years? As this article states, everyone is expecting a Level 5 vehicle. It’s likely that most of these companies are aiming to develop Level 4 (not 5) vehicles, which means that they will be automated, but they will only be able to operate in designated areas and humans may need to take over. Most of the automation that we are seeing today are in Level 2 vehicles (e.g., Tesla’s “Autopilot” system), but we are seeing some of the shared autonomous vehicles operating at Level 4.
- Where are these vehicles going to be available? I think most people read headlines citing the availability of driverless vehicles in 2020 and they assume that they can go to a car dealership and purchase one. In reality, I believe we will see shared driverless fleets (similar to what Uber is testing in Pittsburgh and Nutonomy is testing in Singapore) and Level 2 and 3 automated vehicles available at dealerships.
Then the question about timing of our “driverless utopia” (or 100% fully automated, level 5 vehicles) becomes a much harder timeframe to predict. I still remain hopeful that this “utopian” future will happen in my lifetime, but that timeline is fuzzy. When (if at all) do YOU think it will happen?
Great post as always. I read a good article about these issues from Ontario, Canada that suggests that a complete Level 5 driverless world is many decades off. The article suggests that driverless vehicles will start in a constrained area and those areas will expand slowly but surely until eventually they are used everywhere.
I think some of the timeline depends on technology and some on human nature. How reliable will driverless cars be and what will happen if a driverless computer shuts down/crashes during transit? Do driverless cars need perfect lane markers, maps, etc.? Also, can driverless cars co-exist well with human drivers or will they need to be separated in traffic? If the latter, some people may resist giving up their ability to drive, which will slow the transition down.
I agree with your assessment that shared mobility with be the first SDV application. The City of Boston and nuTonomy just announced a vehicle testing program to begin shortly in Boston’s South End. Our city planners are leaders in rethinking the future of transportation, and this partnership between the City and nuTonomy’s will advance the development a fleet of self-driving cars to serve the public.