The self-driving car is coming, and it’s going to be awesome. Look at what these cars can already do: They can steer by themselves, stay in their own lane, watch for pedestrians and wildlife, and come to a complete stop without human intervention. All while riding on a wave of fresh electricity. They’re not quite like something out of Star Wars, but after getting behind the wheel of a car with driver assistance technologies like the Nissan Rogue, sometimes it seems like we’re on the way there.
To find out where they’re heading in the next ten years, I talked to Alex Roy, cohost of the Autonocast, a podcast devoted to autonomous driving. Roy crisscrossed the country in self-driving cars five times, setting records along the way. He’ll be a keynote speaker at the 2017 Florida Automated Vehicles Summit, and he’s on the board of the LA Auto Show’s Automobility. “I’ve spent more time comparing semi-autonomous vehicles than anyone else in journalism I’m aware of,” says Roy. “Human-driven cars as we know them are going to go away.”
Roy believes that we’ll first see autonomous cars at their most useful in mobility-impaired areas, like planned retirement communities in Florida, where companies like Voyage are breaking through. Voyage offers self-driving taxis that can be summoned by app and take residents wherever they want to go within these controlled environments. The next step will be trucks with full autonomy, debuting in 2019 with big names like Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt behind it.
The combination of drudgery, fixed routes, and slow speeds lends itself perfectly to a bus that drives itself. Small electric buses already zip around Singapore, London, Melbourne, and Las Vegas, giving eight passengers at a time a gentle glimpse into the future. These buses “feel safer and more stable than a smaller passenger car,” says Wired, and “more easily weave in and out of less dense places to bring riders straight to transit.”
While we’ve spent the past decade paying attention to the evolution of the self-driving car, the evolution of infrastructure has many futurists intrigued at how our cities might keep up. Researchers at MIT have conceived of traffic lights replaced by algorithms, cars whizzing precisely through computer-controlled intersections. If self-driving cars can drop off their occupants before automatically stashing themselves, it means drastic reductions in the amount and size of contemporary parking garages — a boon for city planners from Miami to Nashville, West Hollywood to Cambridge.
These are all tantalizing ideas. But Roy says that level of transformation is still difficult, if not impossible; people balk at voting for expensive infrastructure improvements already, much less these kinds of all-encompassing changes.
Since we’re dealing with an imperfect infrastructure, a self-driving car “has to assume the worst about the real world,” says Roy. A successful autonomous car must navigate a world that has not yet catered to its possibilities: a world of road construction and distracted drivers, of chaos and unpredictability.
Roy mentioned Nissan as an example of how the self-driving car must adapt to real-world conditions: What the company calls Intelligent Mobility not only encompasses semi-autonomous systems that are in production today like ProPILOT Assist*, but also exciting innovations that are years down the road, like “Seamless Autonomous Mobility.” This technology utilizes advances in artificial technology, so the car can recognize unpredictable situations on the road, but also comes with the intelligence to defer to humans just in case.
Roy says the SAM system even allows for “remote control of the vehicle in the event occupants can’t take over,” such as a situation that artificial intelligence has never experienced in the real world, that it can learn from. It acknowledges the chaotic nature of the real world while deploying machine learning to grow smarter. “And that’s a good thing. That requires bandwidth and security, which is more easily solved than infrastructure on the ground.”
SAM is still a few years off, and to get there, it’s important for passengers in autonomous vehicles to feel safe. Occupants riding in a self-driving car find it reassuring that they can resume control at anytime. That’s because “the biggest nut to crack with self-driving cars isn’t technology,” said Roy. “It’s human nature. Driving is more than transportation, it’s transformative. People need to feel like they’re in control.”
Nissan is aiming to implement artificial intelligence that learns from repetition, similar to Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri — or NASA’s language for communicating with interplanetary rovers, with whom Nissan engineers collaborated. That’s pretty damn cool. Knowing that your car was implemented with the same technology that directs rovers on Mars is an exciting beacon toward the future, and perhaps that’s the key to getting the public on board with self-driving cars.
“Over time, people are going to accept that autonomous driving is both possible and safe. And that’s a good thing. Because we get into cars every day with friends and strangers whose driving skills are unknown or terrible.”
*ProPILOT Assist cannot prevent collisions. Always monitor traffic conditions and keep both hands on the steering wheel. See Owner’s Manual for safety information.
Blake Z. Rong is a writer, journalist, and photographer who’s wasted much of his life so far writing about cars and motorcycles. He has contributed to Jalopnik, Road & Track, and Autoweek, among other fine publication. He lives in Austin, Texas.