The wait for the self-driving future is coming to an end. The earliest real-world applications of autonomous vehicles will arrive in 2018.
Starting in Phoenix this year, a small number of commuters will be riding in driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans as part of a trial conducted by Waymo, the self-driving car unit owned by Google’s parent company. For the first time, ordinary people just trying to get to work will be interacting with autonomous vehicles. Waymo has promised to broaden the test to a wider market soon.
Other major players will spend this year preparing for the imminent introduction of driverless vehicles. By 2019, General Motor Co. expects to deploy electric Chevy Bolt robot taxis in big U.S. cities. Uber Technologies Inc. has also pledged to launch a fleet of self-driving Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles in that time frame. Tesla Inc. missed a self-imposed deadline for a coast-to-coast driverless excursion by the end of 2017, but Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk still promises that full autonomy is coming soon to the electric automaker's models.
The major players are gathering this week in Las Vegas at CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, to showcase products meant to overhaul human mobility. To provide a peek into the arrival of the autonomous age, we spoke to industry leaders and transportation experts. The idea was to fill in the blanks on how we will interact with the first driverless vehicles.
It’s been 10 years since automated driving had its “Kitty Hawk moment,” in which researchers proved that the technology could work just as the Wright Brothers demonstrated the possibility of flight. Now comes the time to put some practical use behind hype. This century’s transportation revolution, if it works as expected, will reach the public on the back of billions invested by the world’s biggest and richest companies, such as Alphabet Inc., Ford Motor Co. and Daimler AG. The earliest uses will be in services, not privately owned vehicles.
“This is going to be a big revolution,” Ashwani Gupta, global head of Renault-Nissan’s light commercial vehicle business, said in an interview. “And it will begin in both people movers and material movers.”
In just a few years these companies are promising to fill the roads with robo-taxis, driverless delivery vehicles, and sentient shuttles that will transform the way we move, upend industries, and ultimately reduce deaths by car accidents. By 2021 there will be 51,000 autonomous vehicles on roads worldwide, according to a new forecast from IHS Markit, with sales projected to rise to nearly 1 million by 2025 and an estimated 33 million by 2040.
But the dawn of autonomous driving will be tentative and tightly controlled. “I don’t care what GM or Waymo say,” said Mike Ramsey, a transportation analyst with researcher Gartner Inc., “the idea that these will be free-range vehicles that can go anywhere is not realistic.”
The first robot rides will operate at low speeds, moving cautiously enough even in dense traffic that urban planners may add specifically defined pickup areas and slow lanes for automated vehicles. That will help prevent rear-enders and other similar crashes that result from impatient, inattentive humans. There will also probably be human minders, either on board or monitoring remotely, poised to take control if artificial intelligence needs to be replaced with the biological variety.