What’s Up with Self-Driving Cars?

Whether you figured we’d all be checking our email while having our cars drive us by now or not, it’s pretty clear the dream of a self-driving car hasn’t yet reached its full expectation. Even though it’s 2019, the prospect of self-driving cars still has quite a ways to go before they can hit the road. The timeline of self-driving cars has been anything but easy.

Our expectations moved faster than technology was able to. In 2013, Wired said: “No more science-fiction fantasies. Driverless cars are around the corner – it’s a reality.” But in 2019, the closest we’ve come is Tesla’s Autopilot (which still rather obviously has its shortcomings) and some semi-autonomous assist systems. It’s clear there’s still a lot standing in the way of progress and development in the technology. From politics, to costs, to public perception, progress hasn’t gone as fast as we’d once anticipated.

They certainly aren’t as advanced as many thought they would be six years ago. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. Let’s take a look at how far they’ve come (and how far there is to go) before our cars will be able to do the driving for us.

The Early Days

In 2013, the idea of a car doing the driving for you wasn’t new, but the technology certainly was. This was the year that brought the beginning of what would eventually become General Motors’ Cruise, and Waymo’s autonomous Lexus. Nissan promised to have a driverless car available in 2020, but there were some obvious limitations to these promises and tests.

Not all states and laws have been kind to fully autonomous vehicles, and even today, only seven states permit their use and testing. Many states still aren’t welcoming the technology, which has been, and will continue to be, a huge hurdle in autonomous vehicle (AV) development. In 2015, Arizona’s governor allowed testing, though the offer was rescinded after a fatal accident in Tempe. This case involving a self-driving Uber vehicle ushered in a new era for AVs along with a bad reputation that still lingers today.

A year ago: No news would’ve been good news

It seemed that 2018 was on track to be a big year for self-driving technology, but in fact, it was full of bad news.

In the wake of this accident, Uber decided to suspend testing on all public roads. A survey by AAA found that 71% of Americans had some fear about riding in an AV.

While many had been talking about the possibility of using AVs to reduce highway accidents and traffic congestion prior to the incident, there was mounting fear and continued opposition. The news seemed to serve as a reminder that the technology isn’t perfect, and just how much progress still needs to be made before driverless technology can fully and safely be deployed on the roads.

Today: What’s out there now

Contrary to where we thought we’d be by 2019, we still haven’t seen the full potential or perfection of autonomous vehicles. There’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to making our cars driverless. And many of the promises we thought we’d see come to fruition haven’t yet made it there.

There are several systems available today, but none have achieved true driverless autonomy. They’ve only recently been able to integrate with maps to take directions while in autopilot mode. Perhaps the closest is Tesla’s Autopilot, but even in its most advanced version, it’s far from perfect. Drivers have reported trouble with faded road markings or back roads, as well as stopped emergency vehicles like fire trucks. So it seems there are limits to what this technology can do.

Another limitation may be the cost. As technology tends to be, it’s expected that autonomous vehicles will be far from cheap. But just how expensive is unclear. “Full” self-driving functions on the Tesla Model S aren’t standard. They’ll cost about $8,000 extra, and keep in mind they’re still limited to highway use. It’s hard to tell what the cost could look like for the fully autonomous vehicles that GM and Honda are developing. Since they’re aimed toward ridesharing purposes, they might be well above the price range of the average consumer. Costs could prove to be yet another barrier to those wanting to have a car sans the steering wheel in their driveway.

Several other brands have integrated semi-autonomous drive systems, but these still fall far behind the expectation of being able to drop the wheel. Nissan and Cadillac have both integrated these systems, but they don’t go beyond the ability to keep in the center of the lane and maintain a steady cruising distance with vehicles ahead.

It’s clear the technology is lacking, but that’s not to say there can’t be progress in the coming few years. And not as fast as many seem to think. So if you’re waiting to own a self-driving car, don’t hold your breath. If the past is any indication, there are still many more ups and downs to come.





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