One of the most fascinating areas of research we get to do these days is to look at the technology behind self-driving cars and try and make sense of this new thrust in automated vehicles.
Like most of us researching this field, we now believe that self-driving cars will, over time, drastically reshape the way we use automobiles and move more and more people to either some type of ride-hailing transportation model or actual ownership of a self-driving car themselves.
Although this transition may take as many as 20-25 years to move the majority of people to using these types automated vehicles for their personal transportation, it really is just a matter of time before this happens.
At the moment, this concept is pretty radical to most people and most are highly reluctant to turn over the driving of a car they are in to an automated robot driver today. Of course, self-driving cars are not actually ready for prime time even if the technology to deliver a self-driving car is on the horizon. Most car companies believe they can have fleets of vehicles ready for many major cities to use in an on-call fleet model by 2020-2021 in which a person can just call up a self-driving car at will and it picks them up and takes them to their destination. The reality is this is only 3-4 years away. And they also tell me that people will be able to buy fully automated vehicles for their own use by as early as 2022-2024.
Like most people who have had control of the wheel of a car all of their lives, I too was reluctant to go on a test drive in a self-driving car to experience what it is like to understand not only how this works but also to get a grasp of its ultimate potential. The opportunity recently came up for me to do this type of test drive as part of my work with the State of Hawaii and their current Governor, David Ige. I first got involved with helping Hawaii in the late 1990’s when then Governor, Benjamin Cayateno, asked me to help work on a program to entice tech companies to Hawaii. Under his leadership, Hawaii passed a special law to give tax incentives to tech companies who would set up offices in the Islands with the hope of getting more IT students from the islands employed at home instead of having them go to the mainland for jobs. The program was only mildly successful but unfortunately did not meet the real objectives they had hoped for it.
During that time I got to meet and work with David Ige, who was a State Senator at the time and as an electrical engineer, was very helpful in getting this bill passed. He is now the Governor of Hawaii and over the years he and I have had various conversations about what is hot in tech and Silicon Valley. Since he has become governor, at least once a year I visit him at his office to talk about the world of technology and things that I believe will impact the State of Hawaii. In my meeting with him last March, I shared with him what was happening in the area of self-driving cars, something that he and his transportation folks were already looking at closely. During our talk I suggested that the next time he came out to Silicon Valley he and I visit some of the major players creating the brains behind self-driving cars as well as Google, who is a major player in promoting and creating self-driving car technology and designs.
So in early April, during a scheduled trip to San Francisco, he carved out an afternoon and he and I went to visit Nvidia and Google to get an update on where things are in automated vehicles. My key objective for the Governor was to give him a better idea of what was happening now in this area and get him thinking about creating a plan for the State of Hawaii to allow for testing of self-driving cars soon as well as start to work on what will eventually be state and local laws needed to govern self-driving cars in the Hawaiian Islands.
It was during our visit with Google’s Waymo group that he and I were given a test drive in a Waymo vehicle and got a chance to experience a self-driving car in action. This was fascinating and enlightening and made it clear to us that the technology to deliver automated vehicles is much closer to reality than many believe. In our test drive, there was a person in the driver’s seat who just pushed the button to start the car and set it in motion. They had put in all of the driving details before we got to the car and once started, the car took off on the designated route. During that time the driver never touched the steering wheel, brakes or accelerator and the car drove and navigated every street light accurately, stopped for pedestrians in cross walks automatically and even stopped quickly when a cyclist cut in front of us.
In the right seat was another person who had a laptop that was showing us what the car was seeing. The view they showed us was what the cameras and sensors saw, how the car was using these tools to navigate the road ahead and made it clear that this vehicle was pretty much all seeing and all knowledgable, sensing every line, stoplight and moving object in a 360 degree radius as we cruised the streets of Mt. View, CA.
Taking a test drive in a self-driving vehicle and seeing not only how it works but also how flawless the technology behind it performed, more than convinced me that the technology itself is ready to deliver on the promise of an automated vehicle sooner than later.
But it also made me understand that besides the regulatory issues that have to be solved on Federal, State and city level, as well as many other things that have to be done at the technology level before we get these types of self-driving vehicles on our streets, convincing people to trust a self-driving car to ferry them around may be a tough sell. I received my license when I was 16 years old and have driven cars and motorcycles since then. They present a very familiar way of transportation for me, and after decades of practice, I consider my self an accomplished driver. I suspect that for most people over 30, driving has become second nature and being in control is something that we like from our driving experience.
Of course, the fact that we can’t control the actions of others is why self-driving vehicles make so much sense. As I saw in the Waymo example, the technology employed in an automated vehicle has 360 degrees of sight as well as sensors that could anticipate the cyclist I mentioned above and stop way in advance before hitting this person. In essence, this automated car is much smarter than a driver and can act even faster with greater knowledge of the cars surroundings and respond quickly to almost all situations it encounters.
I still believe that it will take a lot of convincing before most drivers are willing to give up control of their vehicles and fully trust a self-driving car. If you are a technology, early adopter, as I am then perhaps you will be willing to jump in a self-driving vehicle and let it take you away. In fact, it will be the early adopters who will be the first to let a self-driving car serve as their robot chauffeur initially. For some seniors and those with issues that keep them from driving, a self-driving car would be a godsend at any age to give them the flexibility to go anywhere they want once these types of cars hit the road.
However, even with these cars being able to be on the road and in fleet service by 2020 and available to purchase by 2022-2024, I think it may take as many as another 10-20+ years before we see what we call a more mass market for self-driving vehicles. Even though the technology will be ready, I sense that it is going to take the public much more time to come to trust these automated vehicles before they take what will be a leap of faith and trust them to cart them around safely.