How Close Are We to Buying Self-Driving Cars?

There has been a lot of chatter lately about when people can spend money on a self-driving car. Is it in 2020 or 2021? Before answering that question, there needs to be some clarity on what a self-driving car is.

There is no doubt that self-driving cars, along with artificial intelligence, are the pillars of which the future will stand. The term “self-driving” is rather vague, and some automakers have gotten away with exploiting it for marketing. To clear things up, the Society of Automotive Engineers stepped in. SAE International designed J3016_201806, the recommended practice for motor vehicle driving automation systems.

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SAE Levels of Driving Automation

According to SAE International, there are six levels to self-driving automation, from zero (lowest) to five (highest).

  • Level 0 Automation.

The base level with no self-driving capabilities.

  • Level 1 Automation.

The vehicle performs some acceleration and light steering tasks without human intervention. The driver controls everything else.

  • Level 2 Automation.

Similar to advanced cruise control or Tesla’s autopilot system. The vehicle can perform safety actions, but the driver needs to stay alert behind the wheel and take control when necessary.

  • Level 3 Automation.

The car can make safety/critical functions under specific traffic and environmental conditions. A driver is still needed because s/he will have to assign these tasks to the vehicle.

Note: Many experts view this level as dangerous, as human drivers may be prone to pass all the major tasks of driving to the car. Some manufacturers, such as Ford, want to skip this level and head straight to level four.

  • Level 4 Automation.

The vehicle can drive itself almost all the time, without any human intervention or input. This is the level where drivers can sleep, read, or watch a movie. Drivers may also pre-program the car to skip unmapped roads during bad weather.

  • Level 5 Automation.

Full automation in all driving and environmental conditions, without any human input. This level is what a real self-driving car is all about.

It’s useful to note that when auto executives talk about “self-driving,” they are referring to vehicles that are levels 3 and 4.

Are We There Yet: When Can People Buy Self-Driving Cars?

If you pay close attention to the bold claims and tweets, self-driving cars are just around the corner.

However, the reality on the ground and in the boardroom is that these projections are way off. The driverless, collision, and traffic-free utopia everyone’s dreaming about can take more than a decade to be fully realized. According to Chris Urmson, an autonomous vehicle (AV) technology pioneer, while he was at Google, it may take 30 – 50 years before AVs are everywhere.

Taking a nap or watching Netflix while on the way to work may never even materialize in our lifetime.

Technology has always been reliable. However, in a scenario where countless lives are at stake, it would be foolish to rush things. So, anyone expecting autonomous vehicles zipping up and down the highways is in for a long wait.

Another reality is that most manufacturers are looking to offer self-driving cars as a subscription service. The cost for an autonomous vehicle is expected to be high, and average consumers won’t be able to afford it anyway. Even used car buyers will have no choice but to subscribe, because there may be no option to buy a second-hand autonomous vehicle.

With the expected life-span of self-driving vehicles, subscription seems like a viable option. The upside here is no maintenance, fuel, and insurance costs for the consumer. The car is “shared,” much like how Uber and Lyft operate. Also, used self-driving vehicles won’t be available, eliminating the need to search the VIN number or give the car a once-over before purchasing.

Let’s See What the Experts Are Saying

J.D Power and SurveyMonkey conducted a new survey featuring industry experts in both the tech and auto industry. The gist of the findings was that self-driving cars need to be near perfect before release. The many challenges of making an autonomous vehicle safer than what we have now will prevent the whole thing from taking off anytime soon.

The survey polled more than 100 tech and auto experts for the Mobility Conference Index. The goal? To measure what insiders think about the future of self-driving vehicles. J.D Power compared the results with opinions from 5,000 consumers questioned at the same time.

Here are the findings:

  • Many consumers think that it will take a decade or more before self-driving vehicles are ready for any viable use.
  • Experts from the tech and auto industry predict that it will take 12 years before fully-autonomous vehicles can be sold to private buyers.
  • Autonomous vehicles will make up only 10% of all automobiles bought or sold by 2034.
  • According to insiders, robotaxis won’t be ready for public use and widespread adaptation until 2025.

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The Main Challenge: Perfecting the Design

One key takeaway from the survey was that it highlighted one of the more significant challenges in the development of self-driving vehicles. The technology behind autonomous cars must be perfect. Cars and trucks should be able to maneuver and go everywhere without human intervention safely.

A real self-driving car wouldn’t need any input from the driver. Getting this technology perfected is currently slowing down the development of self-driving vehicles. The realization that we are not there yet – technology-wise – may have led some of the industry experts to reassess their timelines for launch.

General Motors subsidiary Cruise even postponed the launch of its autonomous ride-share service. The company cited that it needed to continue development and validation to make sure the self-driving car is safe and ready. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is sticking to his guns, saying that there will be a million robotaxi-Teslas on the road by the end of 2020.

However, Tesla would need to seek regulatory approval before anything can happen. Let’s hope they do so we can get a taste of what the future will be like.

Is the Dawn of the Self-Driving Automobile Finally Upon us?

Ask auto industry experts and manufacturers back in 2016 and they’ll all say yes, we’ll be there shortly. Auto manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, and Ford have all stated that they will have self-driving vehicles on the highway by 2020-21. However, based on all the hurdles the technology is facing, the bold predictions in 2016 have been tempered.

The recent criticism some automakers face due to the false advertising of their self-driving tech has made car companies wary. Observers view some self-driving technology as glorified cruise control, and they are right, for the most part. As noted, there are levels to this game. If you haven’t reached the 4th and 5th levels, you can’t call your vehicle a true self-driving one.

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As high as the strides in artificial intelligence have been, it’s still in its infancy. Driving is too complicated, the situations too diverse, for even a genius infant to figure out. In driving, there’s too much information to take in and way too many variables at play. If you have plans of buying a self-driving car in 2020 or 2021, you should either keep your money or buy a hybrid.

We’re going to get there.


Written by Daniel Robinson

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