Self-Driving Cars: Myth or Reality?

Are self-driving cars really coming? Drumrolls!! Yes, they are really coming and coming in a big way.

To justify my claim, a brief history of self-driving cars is warranted. Self-driving cars have come a long way from 2004 when DARPA staged the first long-distance (150 miles) challenge for autonomous cars with a prize money of $1 million. Fifteen teams competed and no one came close to completing the 150-mile course through the Mojave desert. In 2005, DARPA raised the prize money to $2 million. This time, they had a winner. Stanford University team, headed by Prof. Sebastian Thrun, with its autonomous Volkswagen Tourareg named “Stanley” completed the course in 6 hours and 54 minutes. In 2007, DARPA moved its challenge to a 60-mile urban environment course. Again, Stanford University’s “Junior” headed by Prof. Thrun completed the task in 4 hours and 29 minutes. The real push to self-driving car research happened in 2010 with Google’s self-driving program, spearheaded by Prof. Thrun. From 2010 to now, Google’s self-driving cars have logged more than 2,000,000 miles with only one minor accident. To put this in perspective, there were an estimated 5 million car crashes (about 30,000 fatal) in the U.S. caused by humans in 2010 alone. This ascertains the fact that machines do not suffer from distraction and fatigue as us humans do.

Companies such as Uber are hard at work proving the viability of the technology and showcasing the future of transportation. Recently, Uber launched a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Early reports show that consumers are delighted with the experience. This shows a gradual build-up in consumer confidence in self-driving cars. A recent survey done by Consumer Technology Association (CTA) revealed that 70% of 2000-odd participants are ready to test-drive autonomous cars and almost as many are interested in replacing the car they own/rent with a car that drives itself. It is not just Google and Uber who are building self-driving cars, the traditional car manufacturers are also innovating or acquiring start-ups to stay competitive. GM purchased Cruise Automation for a whopping $1 billion. Several car companies have established R&D centers in Silicon Valley and Michigan.

Wall Street has also started to take a note of the potential of the market for self-driving cars. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has estimated a market size of $42 billion by 2025. Valuations of companies that play in the self-driving car space have skyrocketed. NVIDIA, a builder for computing platform for self-driving cars, has seen its stock double in about a year.

Hiring talent to build self-driving cars is on a rise. Industry veteran Prof. Thrun has estimated $10 million a year as the going rate for a self-driving car engineer.

Finally, regulators are also noticing the potential of self-driving cars. U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) has recently released guidelines for autonomous vehicles. Though the guidelines are stringent and they are ought to be, it is an endorsement of self-driving technology.

Very exciting times ahead! I see a future for safer roads with self-driving cars with fewer accidents, more real estate to build houses instead of parking garages, and fewer carbon emissions.