I’ve been thinking a lot about self-driving cars lately—and I’m not the only one. Predictions abound about when the technology will be fully ready, but these vehicles are already out there being tested on public roads. In fact, I’m lucky if a week goes by and I don’t see a car with a spinning roof top sensor—even my first-grader is pretty good at spotting them. I live in San Francisco and have already seen a couple of Uber’s self-driving Volvos plying the streets over the past week. I’ve been seeing Chevy Bolts too—presumably being tested by Cruise Automotive. The race for self-driving cars amongst the tech and auto industry is clearly game on and is likely to heat up in 2017.
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2017) is the first week in January in Las Vegas and will set the stage for 2017. Once again it appears that self-driving tech is going to be a hot topic with both major and upstart automakers as well as technology providers looking to reveal new products. Fiat Chrysler of America—a laggard in recent EV market analysis—is expected to announce a full electric vehicle at CES, building on the recent release of the plug-in hybrid Pacific minivan. They’ve also partnered with Google’s self-driving business Waymo and are reportedly delivering 100 Pacificas for autonomous vehicle testing. Nissan CEO Carlo Ghosn is giving a keynote, Hyundai is expected to give rides in a self-driving Ioniq, and Faraday Future has been building anticipation around its CES announcement with numerous teasers. I’m taking the trip to Vegas this year to see what all the hype is about.
And no doubt there is a lot of hype. Personally, I’m hopeful about the potential for self-driving technology. I’m lucky enough to do a lot of my daily trips by bicycle with my kids in tow. And I’ve seen enough close calls to always expect the unexpected—but we all know even extra vigilance can’t guarantee 100 percent safety. So wouldn’t it be great if every car actually used their turn signal, or gave 3 feet when passing bicyclists that the law requires, or eliminated the dangers of distracted driving?
But I’m also leery about how these vehicles might cause confusion and disruption. Will their behavior be predictable in the same way as a driver’s? When I get to a stop sign in a car or on a bike, all it takes is a head nod or a hand wave and everyone can pass smoothly through a four-way stop. What happens when some vehicles don’t have drivers? When I walk across the street, I always tell my kids to make eye contact with the driver before they cross to make sure they see them. Now what? With driverless cars, the rules of the road might not change, but the norms will. Once these vehicles truly hit the streets it’s going to be important to make sure not only that the vehicles operate safely but that those they interact with—from pedestrians, to cyclists, to other motorists and any other public road users—adapt to this new technology as well. And as Brian Wiedenmeier of the SF bicycle Coalition pointed out after a self-driving Uber twice made an illegal right hand turn across a bike lane, just following the rules of the road at this point seems to be a challenge.
Self-driving car technology may be able to make our roads safer, but building the public’s trust in the technology will be important to its acceptance. Uber’s decision this past week to defy an order to comply with self-driving car registration requirements was disappointing, to say the least. In its statement Uber seemed to argue that California’s registration requirements, which 20 companies have already complied with, are too onerous and would stall innovation. Instead of complying with this public safety law (and paying the $150 application fee) in exchange for allowing the company to use public roadways as a laboratory to test their technology, Uber chose to lawyer up. This doesn’t bode well for building trust. And if Uber does succeed in skirting the law, transparency will also be undermined, as reporting on incidents related to the safe operation of the vehicle would no longer be required.
Cooperation between government and industry in deploying self-driving cars is going to be hugely important to build confidence in the technology both by policy makers and the public. And the technology isn’t just about the safety of our roads—though that would be enough of a reason for cooperation. Other areas where these vehicles could have profound impacts include energy, pollution, impacts on public transit, congestion, and labor and workforce concerns—and whether the impacts are positive or negative is yet to be seen. On climate emissions alone, various studies show a wide range of possible outcomes as a result of deploying self-driving cars, from doubling of emissions to cutting them by 50 percent or more. There’s a lot at stake.
These issues are sure to heat up in 2017, as more vehicles are tested on public roads, new research points to the positive and negative outcomes possible with self-driving cars, and policy makers at the local, state and federal level start to consider the actions they can take to ensure companies advance this technology responsibly and steer outcomes toward societal good. Additional accidents involving self-driving cars are sure to bring more scrutiny to the technology as well as the protocols and protections being in put into place by companies and government agencies. UCS will also be taking a closer look at the implications of wide-spread deployment of AVs and ways to ensure they deliver on the promises and avoid the pitfalls. So stay tuned.
When will self-driving cars be ready for prime-time? Not sure, but 2017 will no doubt be a year for increased attention, debate, research—and yes—hype around cars that can drive themselves.