Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving project, presented at SXSW last week and you can see all the crazy stuff drivers and pedestrians do and face on our roads. Time magazine presented an even more powerful case for why we should give up our driver’s licenses in their cover story couple of weeks ago. Besides the reduced accidents and lost time in traffic gridlock, Urmson also pointed to the promise of less parking needed with driverless cars ““Imagine a world where the urine-scented concrete bunkers at the center of every city can be turned into residential and park space.”
But when is that world likely? According to Urmson, it could be 3 or 30 years.
As a technologist, and influenced by a wife who likes to read while being driven, I would love to see it in 3 years. And I can see it in tightly controlled scenarios – in a planned city like Masdar, in lightly traveled parts of New Zealand, in disciplined corridors in places like Singapore or in a truck platoon (where a human driver in the lead or middle of a train of driverless trucks). But my research for the book on automation tells me it is more likely to be 30 or even longer years for broader, global rollout.
For the book, I have looked at UPC scanners, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and bunch of other technologies and how they take decades to mature and even longer to go mainstream. The technology building blocks for driverless cars have been evolving for decades. The 1958 Chrysler Imperial first introduced cruise control to the masses, in 1992 Mitsubishi introduced a LIDAR based distance detection system and in 1999 Mercedes introduced Distronics assistive cruise control to the world. The DARPA funded Grand Challenges for driverless cars were first held in 2004.
The technologies are evolving fine and it helps that many of the large auto makers are now investing seriously in driverless concepts.
On the other hand, the infrastructure – physical, legal etc – needs to evolve quite a bit. Delphi, an auto parts manufacturer, took its driverless vehicle on a cross-country trip last year. It found that pavement markings are quite different in spite of uniform standards across states. Our traffic lights and other road infrastructure will have to become smarter with sensors and lots more fiber to be able to communicate with the new cars. This new investment will have to come as cities and counties struggle to find alternatives to speeding fines which will shrink in a world of much safer cars.
Let’s not forget incumbent interests will not exactly roll over. The $ 200 billion a year auto insurance and the $ 300 billion auto after-market industries don’t exactly want cars to be too safe. And those concrete bunkers Urmson talks about? The $ 100 billion parking industry does not either.
But the biggest incumbent resistance will come from drivers themselves. Mazda is betting on our continued love for “zoom zoom”. So are Porsche and other car makers who are counting on human versus robotic drivers. As Time said “There is no “right to drive” enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but forced to choose, a lot of people would rather take the wheel than the Fifth”
Yes, stats show our young are less enamored of cars than we were – statistically, fewer 16 years are showing up for their learner’s permits. Yet, the US had its best year for car sales ever in 2015.
And here’s the final boost for drivers. All the software and sensors are making EVERY new car safer. Today few of us have the 35 Driver Assist features Audi has in its Q7 but over the next few years they will come to many more human controlled models.
Thinking of broader, global rollout, I was talking to a professor who is Indian and he asked me “Can you ever see driverless cars in Mumbai with no marked lanes, and competing with cows, dogs, pedestrians everywhere?” And he did not even mention that drive guidance in India is often based on landmarks, rather than cardinal directions. No wonder India’s carmakers as they plan their own driverless versions are testing them first in the UK and Singapore.
Not just India, many other parts of the world will have similar challenges. Let’s not forget most of the world still drives manual transmission cars, even though Oscar H. Banker was granted the patent for automatic transmission way back in 1940.