Autonomous vehicles have been the stuff of dreams and hype for some years now. Traffic jams would be a thing of the past as vehicles would seamlessly sweep passengers from A to B, without fuss. It was to be like a classical masterpiece, without the music.
It was easy to see why big tech companies were getting so excited by the idea. They ‘owned’ the screens and devices in your home, they ‘owned’ the screens and devices in your office, the only piece they didn’t ‘own’ was the bit in between. Autonomous vehicles provided an opportunity to keep their customers’ attention for another hour or two of the day.
Things were beginning to go quiet even before the pandemic hit. And then, finally, Waymo launched an autonomous taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona.
The pause in progress brought a pause for thought.
You have to wonder about autonomous vehicles and their future in the current and near-future context. With a significant proportion of the population working remotely, the traffic problem is a lot better, which takes away one argument for their rollout. It is also very likely that the lovely idea that you can get into your autonomous vehicle and read the news or play a game or have a nap is not going to happen. Most regulators will insist that, autonomous or not, a responsible adult needs to be ready to take control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice. There have been enough fatal crashes to make anything less highly unlikely.
The reality has to be that with the enormous amount of investment (said to be around $80 billion), an addressable market that is much smaller than companies were predicting and regulators who are less and less excited about the idea of proper autonomous vehicles, we will end up with a big compromise.
Of course, Tesla will continue to improve their systems, and of course, Waymo will continue to roll out taxi services.
However, the idea that you will one day own an autonomous vehicle is dwindling fast.
As Wikipedia reports, ‘a National Transportation Safety Board chairman said (of 2020), ‘there is no vehicle currently available to US consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to US consumers still requires the driver to be actively engaged in the driving task, even when advanced driver assistance systems are activated’.
It is safe to say that autonomous vehicles and the dreams that went with them have hit a bump in the road. The mixture of safety issues and the narrowing of an addressable market will combine to demand a heavy compromise. On the bright side, we will be able to enjoy ‘driving’ our cars for many years to come.