While some people are still wondering whether or not the autonomous vehicle will ever emerge from the realms of science fiction, in the real world we have already turned the corner of the innovation curve and motored on to the adoption phase. Obviously, this does not mean that the previous phase, development, has ended: we will still see many developments and changes. But in the next months, we will see more models and varieties of autonomous cars in a growing variety of situations and contexts, and we will probably get opportunities to try them ourselves or to talk to someone who did.
Since November, in Phoenix, Arizona Waymo’s autonomous Chrysler Pacifica vehicles are now a common sight on the city’s roads. Read this article in Ars Technica called “What it’s like to live in Phoenix? Waymo units all over the damn place”, in which some residents there share their experiences coexisting not only with the company’s vehicles transporting families who have signed up as beta testers, but also with Uber’s numerous Volvo XC90s and some Chevrolet Bolts also being road tested in the city.
Phoenix’s popularity is due to the desert city’s benign climate, where it rarely rains and never snows, meaning great driving conditions. At the same time, state governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order in August 2015, pretty much inviting any company that wanted to road test its autonomous vehicles. The impact of that two-page document, which should serve as an example to politicians around the world, has been significant, making Arizona a leading center for autonomous driving. Waymo has moved its units to the area (it has others undergoing tests in less benign climates such as Detroit), and has inked an agreement with Avis to maintain its fleet (sending the car hire company’s shares up by 21%), while launching a campaign with the slogan, “Let’s talk self-driving” with civic associations to raise road safety awareness and the benefits of autonomous driving.
Older people have been identified as one of the main beneficiaries of self-driving vehicles: in the United States, wealthier retirees often opt to live in retirement communities which have little to do with typical retirement homes (and where sex and alcohol are seemingly in abundance :-) and where many residents face difficulties driving. One of the largest of these communities in Florida, The Villages, with 125,000 residents, more than 54,000 houses, covering 83 square kilometers, with 1,200 kilometers of roads and three urban centers, has just announced an agreement with a startup, Voyage, to provide a robotaxis fleet. Elderly people with driving difficulties have proved to autonomous vehicle technology, immediately seeing the benefits.
At this month’s CES in Las Vegas, visitors had the opportunity to try a Lyft autonomous vehicle to move around the city and from the convention centers to their hotels or other places. The vehicles were manned by a safety driver, but who was virtually idle: most people described the experience as completely normal. Upcoming global events like the Olympic Games will likely see similar initiatives.
Hot on the heels of its third version, GM has just launched the fourth generation of its Cruise, which has no pedals or steering wheel (in the image), reflecting the pace of change. This is not just some concept vehicle: the company has applied for all permits and expects to obtain full approval for the use of a starting batch of 2,600 vehicles as a stand-alone taxi service in 2019. Take a look at the video: this is what we can expect vehicles to look like soon: four seats, with passengers able to control only the heating and ventilation, entertainment, and a red emergency stop button.
Autonomous vehicles are not designed to be owned, but will be part of fleets, transforming the automobile from product to service. Private vehicle ownership will not be banned, but as we see more and more self-driving vehicles on our roads, we will their value, seeing the benefits of being able to sleep, rest, or work while traveling, as well as the safety aspects… Driving, at best, will become a hobby, in the same way that horse riding or sailing is now.
Readers with any doubts about where we’re headed should take the time to click on the links above and read in more detail. The technology will continue to improve, adapting to other places with more complex conditions (climate, quality of roads, etc.), and all this is going to happen very quickly as fleets build up driving knowledge. The point is that autonomous vehicles are here to stay. Ignore reality at your peril.
(En español, aquí)