2020 Predictions for Driverless Cars

After decades of waiting for the promise of autonomous vehicles (driverless cars) that will let us work or entertain ourselves as we travel, we’re disappointed they aren’t available yet, but still resigned to be patiently hopeful. Driverless cars are certainly in our children’s future, but are they in ours? Hard to say, but Google recently unveiled its latest prototype, which doesn’t even have a set of manual controls. That’s promising!

Seventy-five years ago, on April 30, 1939, the colossal New York World’s Fair opened in what is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in the borough of Queens. The theme was “The World of Tomorrow.” General Motors had a hugely popular display titled, “Futurama,” which depicted radio-controlled electric cars that were propelled via electromagnetic fields provided by circuits embedded in the roadway. This was, perhaps, the first prediction of a mass produced autonomous car.

All the necessary technologies are now beginning to become reality. The autonomous car will, of course, be based on a number of technological modules. Some we have, some are in development. In fact, some of these modules you’re going to see in cars coming out before 2020. Assembling all these modules together to make the autonomous car can certainly happen by 2020, but, the challenge is putting it all together in a reliable, safe and affordable way.

And, as much as I’m a fan of the concept, and fascinated by the technology, I can’t help but feel that when 2020 comes around driverless cars will still be tightly controlled, restricted in use, and in very limited roles.

Here’s why:

1. Infrastructure Isn’t Ready

Austin will be a good test ground for Google’s driverless cars because of the overwhelming population growth that is increasingly clogging its roadways. Common jargon in Austin for the 22-mile-long MoPac Expressway is “SlowPAC,” because of the seemingly endless bumper to bumper creep-and-crawl at “rush hours,” which seem to be getting longer and longer. Austin is ranked as the top city for technology job creation on a recent Forbes list, with 120 newcomers moving in every day. The Austin Technology Council expects 11,754 new tech jobs will be added to the mix over the next five years!

It is doubtful that adequate highway construction could be accomplished by 2020 to relieve the congestion on that expressway enough to allow for the “platooning” of smart cars as has been proposed for many decades. As Danny Sullivan, writing for c/net recently wrote, there is still the elephant in the room: all the legal and technological challenges to be resolved so these cars can be allowed on freeways, separately, and in platooning mode.

2. Technology Isn’t Ready

The first cars with some of the self-driving features are already coming to market. Mercedes-Benz offers an extremely limited self-driving feature on a couple of models that can take the wheel in stop-and-go highway traffic. But, it only works up to 37 miles per hour, and it doesn’t work when you’re not bumper-to-bumper on a clearly marked highway. Other auto makers are promising to follow, and improve, that capability. Google’s newest autonomous cars are headed to Austin for testing and further development as we speak. But, it’s likely to be many years before autonomous cars are able to fully deliver on their promise of a safer, more efficient future.

Lance Vaughn, CEO of CabForward, a leading digital agency in Austin, commented, “Amazon is likely keeping an eye on the autonomous automotive market, because they thrive on innovative disruption and digital transformation. As technology advances, they tend to push the boundaries and think way outside the box. They don’t mind trying something new, failing, and learning from that failure about how to get their market approach correct. They may not have joined the driverless car initiative, but I’ll bet they’re looking at the alternative market segments like an automated (driverless) taxi or delivery service.”

Austin is one of the leading cities for advocates of alternatives to private car ownership, getting us out of the current multiple-car-per-family mode. Instead of dealing with the hassles of owning personal cars, many Austin residents are already opting to use alternative services like public transportation, Car2Go, Uber, RideScout and similar services. These early adopters are very likely to be subscribers to an automated car service that can take them wherever they need to go, when they need to go, without ownership hassles. This is going to be an attractive market for a company that thrives on innovative disruption and digital transformation.

3. Legislation Isn’t Ready

Once the roads are flooded with self-driving vehicles, accidents and traffic congestion will be greatly reduced, and travel by car will be safer, swifter, and more pleasant. Regulators are already working hard to bring about that future, but there’s already a catch. To get all of the great benefits, most of the vehicles on the road would have to have self-driving and intercommunication capabilities. Here’s the heart of that problem: American automobiles are so high in quality they are lasting a lot longer.

The average car on the road today is eleven or more years old. It’s possible that most every new car on the U.S. market will have self-driving capabilities within a decade. But even if that happens, it’s likely that it will take another decade before most of the cars on U.S. roads have that ability because of what auto manufacturers call the replacement rate. It would likely take an additional decade or more until most vehicles on the road would be driverless. Regulators have to figure out how to deal with those “classic” cars that are not driverless, and don’t have the intercommunication capability built in. (Is there an aftermarket app for that?)

Reasonable Optimism

Still, I am optimistic, if impatient. One recent study suggests 2035 as a more reasonable date for most cars to be self driving, with nearly all cars being autonomous by 2050. There will still be the collector classic cars that will need some technology to make them fit in. I’m certainly happy that so much progress has been made with autonomous vehicles recently, and being involved in the digital app development world, I am very much aware of the wonders of digital transformation in every segment of our lives. Technology is advancing quickly, and I’m certain the promises being made will indeed come true.

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