Am I wrong about self-driving cars?

I’ve said to friends that I didn’t believe my son (who has just turned 11) would need to learn to drive when he turned 18 because by then self-driving cars would be the norm. There’s already a self-driving bus being tested nearby in Stockholm, so seven more years should be enough, no?

At some point in the not too distant future I’ll have to have a conversation with my dad about relinquishing his driving licence. I’m confident my son won’t have to do the same because there will be autonomous cars as alternatives. Or will there?

What seemed like a nailed on certainty no longer seems that way whatever Elon Musk says.

John Krafcik, head of the self-driving car unit of Google parent company Alphabet, said that though driverless cars are “truly here,” they aren’t ubiquitous yet. And he doesn’t think the industry will ever be able to drive at any time of year in any weather and any condition, the highest driving rating. Driving in all conditions can be difficult for humans too, he noted.

It turns out that the problem is something really hard to solve in a program – the unpredictable behaviour of people.

Researchers at Argo say the cars they are testing in Pittsburgh and Miami have to navigate unexpected situations every day. Recently, one of the company’s cars encountered a bicyclist riding the wrong way down a busy street between other vehicles. Another Argo test car came across a street sweeper that suddenly turned a giant circle in an intersection, touching all four corners and crossing lanes of traffic that had the green light.

Instead we have micro-mobility with the sudden rise of electric scooters all over the place. Not that they will be of any use to my septuagenarian father.

The technological reality is that self-driving cars exist and could realistically work for you today but they cannot cope with people so cities tend to be a problem. But cities are not loving cars either as more and more of them seek to become pedestrian friendly, bike friendly and environmentally friendly. The future of the car is not at all certain.

But self-driving cars will continue their advance for several reasons. One is the sheer amount of money invested to give up anytime soon and the rewards for being first are still enormous. Secondly it will be vastly more efficient when traffic can be efficiently managed and accidents virtually eliminated. So what will happen between the A of today and the B of the driverless future?

Trucking will see autonomous vehicles first.

Krafcik said trucking is one area where self-driving vehicles could soon appear in the next couple of years. The US currently lacks about 50,000 truck drivers required for logistics, and that’ll grow to a shortage of about 275,000 over the next couple of years, he said. “The trucking shortage is now,” Krafcik said. “Moving goods on freeways to hub to hub is fairly straightforward.”

My guess is that in places where conditions can be controlled (and unpredictable behaviour reduced to near zero) huge business areas for example that we’ll see industry introduce self-driving vehicles.

I’m adjusting my expectations, I bought the hype but this change will happen but it looks like my son will need the skill of driving after all.

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