Headlines abound about self-driving cars, but there’s a big difference between reading about them and seeing one, replete with all its sensors, on the street. Or, for that matter, taking a ride in one. Uber is back on the road with its self-driving cars—scroll to the blurb on them below for the full update—but plenty of other outfits are making progress and running their cars in states like California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Here’s an evolving round-up of what’s going on with self-driving carson public roads, from Aptiv to Zoox.
IN THE PAST five years, autonomous driving has gone from “maybe possible” to “definitely possible” to “inevitable” to “how did anyone ever think this wasn’t inevitable?” to “now commercially available.” In December 2018, Waymo, the company that emerged from Google’s self-driving-car project, officially started its commercial self-driving-car service in the suburbs of Phoenix. The details of the program—it’s available only to a few hundred vetted riders, and human safety operators will remain behind the wheel—may be underwhelming but don’t erase its significance. People are now paying for robot rides.
And it’s just a start. Waymo will expand the service’s capability and availability over time. Meanwhile, its onetime monopoly has evaporated. Smaller startups like May Mobility and Drive.ai are running small-scale but revenue-generating shuttle services. Every significant automaker is pursuing the tech, eager to rebrand and rebuild itself as a “mobility provider” before the idea of car ownership goes kaput. Ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber are hustling to dismiss the profit-gobbling human drivers who now shuttle their users about. Tech giants like Apple, IBM, and Intel are looking to carve off their slice of the pie. Countless hungry startups have materialized to fill niches in a burgeoning ecosystem, focusing on laser sensors, compressing mapping data, setting up service centers, and more.
This 21st-century gold rush is motivated by the intertwined forces of opportunity and survival instinct. By one account, driverless tech will add $7 trillion to the global economy and save hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few decades. Simultaneously, it could devastate the auto industry and its associated gas stations, drive-thrus, taxi drivers, and truckers. Some people will prosper. Most will benefit. Many will be left behind.
It’s worth remembering that when automobiles first started rumbling down manure-clogged streets, people called them horseless carriages. The moniker made sense: Here were vehicles that did what carriages did, minus the hooves. By the time “car” caught on as a term, the invention had become something entirely new. Over a century, it reshaped how humanity moves and thus how (and where and with whom) humanity lives. This cycle has restarted, and the term “driverless car” will soon seem as anachronistic as “horseless carriage.” We don’t know how cars that don’t need human chauffeurs will mold society, but we can be sure a similar gear shift is on the way.