The boldest bid to remake transportation with tech was also among the earliest, and so far, the most disappointing. In 2009, Google cofounder Larry Page tapped computer scientist Sebastian Thrun to build a self-driving car. Make a vehicle that moves people safely and efficiently, Page said (in Thrun’s telling), and you could have a business as big as Google itself. The resulting effort, now known as Waymo, helped trigger a global race for autonomy, one that many predicted would bear fruit by the decade’s end. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said a Tesla would drive itself across the country in 2017. General Motors promised to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019. Nissan targeted 2020 for the market debut of its self-driving car. Former Waymo lead Chris Urmson said he hoped his sons would never need to learn how to drive.
But billions of dollars and thousands of engineers haven’t produced a robot that can match, let alone eclipse, the ability of the human driver. AV developers have retreated to quiet suburbs and simple interstates, hoping they can master at least some corner of a profoundly complex world. GM pushed back its debut date indefinitely. Nissan has stopped talking about self-driving. Waymo is just starting to take the human backups out of its cars in the Phoenix suburbs. Musk never made his road trip.
Reading this brief overview, two things struck me:
- Having a computer do all that is needed to drive is a monumental task. There is a lot of information to take in from behind the wheel and the environment keeps changing. This makes human drivers look pretty good. Even with all the accidents and deaths that occur every year, that humans can handle all of this at 60 mph or higher is remarkable.
- All the money and effort that has gone into this simply reinforces the car as the primary agent of transportation in the United States. While having no human driver could be a game changer, all this effort does little to displace the car as center of social life, work, urban planning, and sprawl. Perhaps it would be too much to ask Americans to give up cars but this could be viewed by future Americans as a missed opportunity to reorganize society.
Even if the next decade features truly autonomous vehicles, it will take more time for these vehicles to work their way through the system. Since I have also seen lists of the new laws and regulations going into effect January 1, is it far-fetched to imagine a new rule starting in early 2025 that all new vehicles purchased must be fully autonomous?