Our Driverless Future

Saul Steinberg: Car, 1953
Saul Steinberg Foundation/© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Saul Steinberg: Car, 1953

This September, Uber, the app-summoned taxi service, launched a fleet of driverless Volvos and Fords in the city of Pittsburgh. While Google has had its own autonomous vehicles on the roads of Mountain View, California, Austin, Texas, Kirkland, Washington, and Phoenix, Arizona, for a few years, gathering data and refining its technology, Uber’s Pittsburgh venture marks the first time such cars will be available to be hailed by the American public. (The world’s first autonomous taxi service began offering rides in Singapore at the end of August, edging out Uber by a few weeks.)

Pittsburgh, with its hills, narrow side streets, snow, and many bridges, may not seem like the ideal venue to deploy cars that can have difficulty navigating hills, narrow streets, snow, and bridges. But the city is home to Carnegie Mellon’s renowned National Robotics Engineering Center, and in the winter of 2015, Uber lured away forty of its researchers and engineers for its new Advanced Technologies Center, also in Pittsburgh, to jump-start the company’s entry into the driverless car business.

Uber’s autonomous vehicles have already begun picking up passengers, but they still have someone behind the wheel in the event the car hits a snag. It seems overstated to call this person a driver since much of the time the car will be driving itself. Uber’s ultimate goal, and the goal of Google and Lyft and Daimler and Ford and GM and Baidu and Delphi and Mobileye and Volvo and every other company vying to bring autonomous vehicles to market, is to make that person redundant. As Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman make clear in Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, the question is not if this can happen, but when and under what circumstances.

The timeline is a bit fuzzy. According to a remarkably bullish report issued by Morgan Stanley in 2013, sometime between 2018 and 2022 cars will have “complete autonomous capability”; by 2026, “100% autonomous penetration” of the market will be achieved. A study by the market research firm IHS Automotive predicts that by 2050, nearly all vehicles will be self-driving; a University of Michigan study says 2030. Chris Urmson, who until recently was project manager of Google’s autonomous car division, is more circumspect.

“How quickly can we get this into people’s hands? If you read the papers, you see maybe it’s three years, maybe it’s thirty years. And I am here to tell you that honestly, it’s a bit of both,” he told an audience at Austin’s South By Southwest Festival in March. “This technology,” Urmson went on, “is almost certainly going to come out incrementally. We imagine we are going to find places where the weather is good, where the roads are easy to drive—the technology might come there first. And then…


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