The lure of autonomous, self-driving cars is tantalizing, billed as a panacea for our road-going ills. But reconciling whimsical expectations with reality is challenging. Automakers are scrambling to invest in self-driving technologies in hopes of being first to answer a question few asked. General Motors, Ford, Tesla, Mercedes, Google, Uber, and Apple are just a few of the companies working on various autonomous technologies in hopes of delivering a truly self-driving vehicle to the masses. However, pushing the boundaries of technology on congested roads is revealing flaws in some of these systems.
Apple co-founder, programmer, inventor, and entrepreneur Steve Wozniak, speaking with CNBC, has reservations about the immediate proliferation of self-driving cars. “I do not believe in auto driving cars,” he said, adding, “I don’t really believe it’s quite possible yet.”
Wozniak owns a Tesla, which has Autopilot, the company’s assisted-driving technology. And it’s not perfect. He said, “Tesla makes so many mistakes. It really convinces me that auto piloting and auto steering car driving itself is not going to happen.” He didn’t elaborate as to what kind of mistakes his Tesla makes on the road. Woz also owns a Chevrolet Bolt EV.
We have this expectation that self-driving cars are the future—just like the generation before eagerly awaited for flying cars that never got off the ground. Wozniak points out our infrastructure isn’t ready for self-driving vehicles. And that’s on top of waning public trust in such vehicles.
GM Cruise, the automaker’s “autonomous vehicle ride-sharing company.” Is scheduled to launch next year. Earlier this year, the company unveiled the GM Cruise AV, the company’s first production-intent model that lacks a steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals, and other traditional driving controls.
Details are scarce. We don’t know where GM plans to launch these autonomous taxi cabs, nor do we know just how autonomous they’ll be. Can you, for example, hop in one in New York City and take it to Washington, D.C.? Or will these vehicles be geofenced in certain areas, operating in a defined area the automaker extensively mapped for this purpose? The first scenario offers a truly self-driving vehicle. The second is a glorified street car but instead being of limited to riding the rails, it’s electronically limited to a neighborhood or city center.
Perfecting the technology is only one part of the equation. State and federal legislatures are debating how to regulate self-driving vehicles, leading to a patchwork of laws across the nation. A piece of bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, which could clarify regulations of autonomous vehicles and eliminate conflicting rules at state and local levels. While the House has passed its version of the bill, the Senate has not. Not only does the Senate need to pass the law, but then it has to be reconciled with the House bill—and time is running out as a new Congress is set to take over in January.
The road to self-driving cars is long and winding. Automakers are diving headfirst into a society-shifting technology that could face a backlash from consumers and lawmakers if it’s not perfect. Consumers want fully autonomous vehicles that could drive coast to coast without human input, but that seems more fantasy than reality.