Science nerd kids who grew up in the 1950s and 60s knew that flying cars, or small personal aircraft, were only a moment away. The tech magazines of that era told them so.
A painted 1951 cover of Popular Mechanics magazine shows a man in a Stetson pushing a cute little yellow helicopter into his suburban garage. The sky above him is filled with other dads in helicopters preparing to land in their driveways. A few years later, the same magazine featured a family hovercraft. As late as 1991, the cover of the magazine blared: “Anyone can fly the Skycar. Take Off From Your Driveway, Land Anywhere.”
Today, we are still driving decidedly terrestrial Buicks, Dodges and Toyotas. The future that never was can also apply to the self-driving car, also known as the autonomous car. They were supposed to be filling our streets by now, but are rarely spotted.
Their delayed introduction is actually good news. Cities are not ready for such machines. Their early launch would create as many, perhaps more, problems than they would solve. And remember, they are still cars. Cities don’t need more cars, as enlightened mayors such as Paris’s Anne Hidalgo know. She doesn’t want any type of car – diesel, gasoline, electric or self-driving – clogging the streets.
About a decade ago, virtually every Big Tech company (though not Facebook) and many of the biggest automakers dived into the self-driving car game. The tech companies were loaded with obscene profits they had to spend, so why not develop a new product with global potential? That’s when the hype started and it’s only now dying down as reality sets in. These cars are coming, but not any time soon.
The hype ramped up big time in the middle of the last decade. In 2015, Apple boss Tim Cook said at a Wall Street Journal conference that he wanted Apple customers to have “an iPhone experience in their cars” – presumably meaning he did not want those cars to run out of battery power fast, as his phones did.
Google’s Larry Page said that robo-taxis “could be bigger than Google.” The biggest hypester of them all was – surprise! – Tesla’s Elon Musk who, in 2016, called self-driving cars “basically a solved problem.” He predicted “complete autonomy” by 2018. In 2019, with the problem apparently unsolved, he doubled down on his prediction, saying he was “very confident” Tesla would be making robo-taxis in 2020, suggesting the company would have a million fully autonomous vehicles on the road by then.
We are hearing a lot less about how they are about to make drivers’ licences unnecessary.
Last month, Doug Field, the head of Apple’s car project, known as Titan, departed and landed at Ford. Apple has milled through four Titan bosses in seven years. The low-profile division still exists, but seems devoted to developing digital bits for self-driving cars, not the cars themselves. Earlier this year, Lyft sold its self-driving car division to Toyota. Its competitor, Uber, last year sold its self-driving subsidiary to Aurora, a tech company that focuses on autonomous mobility for trucks and ride hailing.
Other tech and car companies, including Cruise, owned by General Motors, and Waymo, owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent, are still forging ahead with the technology and getting permits in California for limited self-driving services. But none of them is publicly stating that the hands-off driving revolution is nigh.
The technology is not there yet. There have been a number of crashes, a few of them fatal, involving cars with varying degrees of autonomous driving capabilities. Creating data systems that can adapt to, and evaluate, every driving situation in a nanosecond is proving to be a formidable challenge. The movements of pedestrians and bikers are unpredictable. Snow and rain can distort data interpretation. In Vienna, experimental autonomous shuttle buses stopped when they detected flowers that had grown in asphalt cracks (the project was ditched in the summer).
And the tech and auto companies behind the self-driving car projects could have fleets ready to go and still not be able to deploy them. That’s because governments have no idea how to set up the legal and road infrastructure to handle autonomous driving.
Will they make dedicated lanes for self-driving cars on highways, where they make the most sense, and in cities? If they do, will the millions of drivers of regular cars who are squeezed into fewer lanes howl in protest and cast retaliatory votes?
If there is an accident, who is liable – the car maker, the software maker or the passenger who, distracted by the video he was watching, failed to override the computer and hit the brakes? How would an insurance company determine liability? Which level of government – local, regional or national – would write the legislation to allow self-driving cars to operate?
None of these questions has been answered. The bigger question is: Do governments really need self-driving cars?
They would have to devote fortunes and eons in time to make the roads, technology and legal systems workable and safe. For what? Imagine if all that time and energy and expense went into public transportation instead. Cars that drive themselves are still massively inefficient and space-consuming machines. They still have to be parked and they can still kill pedestrians. They are a solution in search of a problem.
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