January 12, 2018
Living in Austin, Texas I have seen many self-driving cars operated by Google’s autonomous car division Waymo roaming the streets of downtown. In the beginning it was a little intimidating. The promise of a futuristic driving experience seems to be coming to fruition. It sounds like something out of a science fiction film -- vehicles zipping around the streets carrying passengers with no driver. As a car dealer it scared me to death. I would ask myself, what if everybody wants an autonomous car? What will happen to my business? Then reality kicked in. Not everybody wants to sit in the back seat checking email and playing candy crush. While truly self-driving cars are rare, consumers have access to autos with varying levels of self-sufficiency. And the technology is growing rapidly as governments and insurers struggle to keep pace.
Where the Technology Stands
Those who've been anticipating this exciting new technology may have to wait a bit longer for fully self-driving cars. However, many new autos do have some level of autonomy; the industry's definition of a self-driving car is one that can steer, brake, and accelerate with little or no help from a human. If you've bought a new vehicle in the last couple of years, you may have access to one or more autonomous features.
Automakers Offering Self-Driving Features
At the moment, features paving the way for driverless rides are mostly confined to driver-assist functions like smart cruise control, automated braking and lane centering. You can experience some level of self-driving technology from these companies:
While certain features are available in these manufacturers' vehicles, a few car makers have made significantly more progress than others. Tesla is a clear leader; a powerful on-board computer, enhanced radar and a plethora of cameras and sensors help its Autopilot hardware pave the way for mainstream driverless car operation.
Barriers to Driverless Car Expansion
Many innovative features are found only in higher-priced vehicles. One major factor driving up autonomous car development costs is battery drain caused by multiple sensors and processors. As car makers' R&D teams develop technology, costs will drop dramatically. However, car manufacturers will still have to sell their inventories of traditional cars to make room for their high-tech replacements. And with plenty of variables they've never dealt with, insurers are scrambling to adapt policies to driverless technology. As research speeds along, governments will need to constantly evaluate regulations as well.
Where Driverless Cars Are Being Tested
The public testing ground for self-driving cars now is Phoenix, Arizona. Area streets host unmanned vehicles from Waymo, the autonomous car division of Google's parent company, Alphabet. While Waymo put backup drivers behind the wheel in Volvos, Chevrolets, Lexuses and Chryslers in its earlier public tests, residents of Chandler, AZ, can now be shuttled around town by driverless minivans. In early 2018, GM plans to further its testing of the Chevy Bolt in New York City. Ford will test its own driverless technology in an unannounced city this year as well.
With so much testing, research, and development underway -- not to mention economic pressure among car makers -- we'll no doubt see rapid progress in driverless technology. 2018 is shaping up to be a promising year for autonomous cars, so watch for them near you.