One of the trendiest topics in technology these days has become the idea of self-driving, autonomous vehicles. You may have noticed that most every major car manufacturer now includes self-driving features (such as braking before a collision or perfect parallel parking) in commercials. There also seem to be constant updates about the progress being made by major car manufacturers and tech companies in producing autonomous vehicles that are ready to hit the consumer market. But how close are we really to these vehicles becoming a mainstream reality?
For a lot of people, the first company to look to for updates is Tesla. Elon Musk’s pet tech giant has become a leader in innovative concepts and they’re working hard on the development of autonomous vehicles. Musk has gained a reputation for ambitious goals and seemingly impossible achievements, but he might have outdone himself with his latest claim about self-driving cars. Specifically, he said he’d produce a self-driving Tesla that could make it from Los Angeles to New York City without human intervention by the end of 2017. Even for those who are optimistic about the development of this technology, that’s an ambitious timeline. But Musk wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t push his companies forward by challenging them to meet such deadlines—whether or not he actually reaches his goal. In fact, merely stating such a goal probably means that he’s closer than we might otherwise believe.
However, while Musk is conducting his own experiments with autonomous vehicles, other people and companies more focused on mass production and even public transportation are making what might seem to some as more realistic estimates. A report recently surfaced indicating that Ford Motor Company aimed to be mass producing fully automated vehicles by 2021—a full four years after Musk’s ambitious goal, but also on a broader scale. It’s worth noting that Musk is only suggesting he can conquer a cross-country test by 2017. Ford, on the other hand, is talking about mass production of consumer-ready (and road-ready) vehicles. This is a stronger indication that within five years’ time, self-driving vehicles may become the norm, at least insofar as they’ll be viable alternatives to ordinary cars.
Some similar estimates to the Ford projection have also been put out regarding companies like Lyft and Uber, both of which are working on self-driving fleets that will effectively change the nature of ride sharing and “taxi” style transportation. The idea of summoning a vehicle that will come on its own to take you where you need to go is likely going to be a reality around the same time (if not slightly before) self-driving vehicles become available to the mass consumer market.
The question a lot of people are starting to ask when they see headlines and projections like these is simple: what’s the hold-up? We’ve already seen incredible video demonstrations of self-driving vehicles in action, and whenever a new one spreads online the capabilities of the technology become more clear. It seems that if you browse the internet, there are already vehicles fully capable of handling busy roads all on their own. So why are we going to wait a few years before they’re actually on the roads in significant numbers?
The answer to that question is that, as advanced and impressive as some models already are, there are some pretty significant hurdles that still remain.
Among them are potential problems like these:
- Specific Tech Hurdles – Certain sensors and capabilities of self-driving vehicles are still being tweaked to master the nuances of road performance.
- Morality Questions – It’s still unclear how autonomous vehicles will handle dangerous situations, particularly in terms of whether to prioritize the safety of the driver or the safety of the most possible people involved in a potential crash.
- Consumer Loyalty – While most people are fascinated by the idea of self-driving cars, actually switching over to them will likely be a very gradual process. Some simply won’t trust the technology. Others won’t be ready or able to buy in. For instance, what if you happen to buy a beautiful new car in 2019? You may not be inclined to switch over until 2025 or 2030.
- Regulations – Perhaps the biggest question mark is how the government will factor in. We don’t know for certain yet where self-driving cars will be allowed to operate among other regulatory issues
These are just some of the issues tech developers and car companies will be looking to address in the coming years. The top priority is perfecting the actual technology, which is why Musk and Tesla are worth keeping an eye on. While other companies are focusing more on an eventual mass roll out of self-driving vehicles, Musk appears to be ahead of the pack in actually making the technology road-ready. Once that is accomplished it can be imitated, duplicated, and, once some of the above issues are solved, mass produced.