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Mobility Don’t hold your breath - fully autonomous cars are still decades away

Autonomous vehicle company Waymo began driverless road tests in 2015.

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Hold the hype. Fully autonomous cars, the sort that can whisk you to work through a snowstorm while you sleep, are still probably decades away according to experts.

“In our lifetime,” is as firm a prediction on when fully autonomous cars will be ready as Zaki Fasihuddin, CEO of the Volvo Cars Tech Fund, is willing to make. “Hopefully in the coming decades,” he said, speaking at the recent Collision technology conference in Toronto.

“It has really been viewed as a technology problem to solve,” he said, adding that the problem has many dimensions. “As people dug into it, they realized it was perhaps a lot more complex than they thought ... It’s societal, in terms of how it impacts public policy; it’s behavioural, in terms of consumer trust and consumer adoption."

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For now, this hesitancy is reserved for Level 5, the highest level of autonomous vehicles. Level 5 refers to vehicles that can drive themselves anywhere, any time, in any weather. But that doesn’t mean many of the benefits can’t begin to be reaped at level 4.

“Ubiquitous level 5, no steering wheel, drive anywhere? Yes, that’s decades away. I don’t think that matters though,” said Sterling Anderson, co-founder of Aurora, a leading autonomous vehicle startup. “The difference we can make [to people’s lives] as we introduce level 4 systems – which is to say, bounded systems — is pronounced,” he said at Collision.

Several companies, including Uber and Alphabet-owned Waymo, already have prototype Level 4 test-cars running on public roads, albeit with human drivers always behind the wheel as a backup to correct the machines when they make a mistake.

According to Anderson, Level 4 conditionally-autonomous vehicles likely won’t take decades to arrive, though they’ll be able to drive themselves only under certain circumstances: on big highways or in good weather, for example. They’ll also be bounded by geofences that restrict when and where they operate.

Even when the technology starts to come into maturity, “it’s unlikely that you’ll own it,” Anderson said, likely because the technology will be prohibitively expensive.

“You, as a consumer, will experience your first self-driving car in ride sharing ... From time to time, when you request a ride, one without a driver [might] happen to show up,” he predicted.

The fact of the matter is that the progress of autonomous vehicles will feel, to most people, very incremental, he said. The number of places and conditions in which level 4 cars are able to operate autonomously are expected to grow gradually as the technology proves itself, and they’ll roll out first in cities with warm, sunny climates. (Sorry Canada.)

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Walking back predictions

Despite initial optimism, many early predictions from auto makers on when the dream of driverless cars would be realized have proved false.

In 2015, Carlos Ghosn, then chairman of Nissan wrote that, “by 2020, we plan to introduce vehicles that can navigate without driver intervention in nearly all situations, including complex city driving.” Unless the company has made a spectacular breakthrough, this seems increasingly unlikely.

In 2016, Tesla began selling “full self-driving capability” as an US$8,000 option on its vehicles. At the time, company CEO Elon Musk said a Tesla would be able to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York without a human ever touching the steering wheel.

But that didn’t happen. In April, Musk said, “Probably two years from now we’ll make a car with no steering wheel or pedals.”

No Tesla, or any other vehicle available to the public, has yet proved itself capable of anything resembling “full self-driving.”

“We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Ford CEO Jim Hackett told the Detroit Economics Club earlier this year.

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Onstage, Volvo’s Zaki Fasihuddin seemed to agree. “We’re less concerned about getting the technology out there. We’re more concerned about getting it right," he said. "We’re still very much in the early stages of learning about this technology and learning how consumers interact with it.”

Elon Musk aside, there’s less bullish talk about the timeline for autonomous cars from auto-industry executives these days. They learned their lesson and we have, hopefully, learned not to get caught up in the hype.

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