Driverless Cars Are Already Here

With big initiatives under way from Google, Apple, Daimler and more, the autonomous car is driving into view as the future of transportation.

Whenever we imagine this technology, the reality always seems distant. Indeed, the dominant narrative of Silicon Valley companies’ development efforts is one of stealth, with eventual glitzy launches far in the future, following lengthy, secret testing.

That leaves us dreaming of the autonomous car seen in science fiction movies like “Minority Report,” “Judge Dredd” and “I, Robot,” which all cast protagonists riding future freeways with no hands. After all, such a radical thing as a self-driving car is surely that far away, right?

The truth, however, is that driverless cars are already here — we just don’t recognize them.

Autonomous-car experiments have been carried out since at least the 1950s. Today, many of our journeys are already being driven by algorithms.

Consider cruise control. What is a control system keeping consistent throttle pressure if not the earliest form of outsourcing to the motorway machine? Now, however, adaptive cruise control sees your car match the speed of other traffic by watching the car in front, keeping a steady relative distance.

Our cars already have eyes. Lane Departure Warning (LDW) technology checks for vehicles drifting across lane dividers. Today, cars like the Jeep Cherokee or Mercedes-Benz S-Class send vibrations or tiny tugs through the steering wheel to alert drivers. Tomorrow, they will simply steer back in the lanes themselves.

But our cars are already taking control. Self-parking technology now comes standard on many vehicles, while Forward Collision Warning (FCW) technology is being developed to not just warn about dangers ahead but brake before they are encountered.

Many people would not recognize these features as part of what is being termed the “driverless car.” But that is exactly my point.

The expectation that autonomous vehicles, unavailable today, will one day appear in the future, is inaccurate — and demonstrates that we often overlook how technologies develop and progress steadily and incrementally.

Innovation is an iterative process, not an event.

Innovation is an iterative process, not an event. The new MacBook didn’t suddenly arrive as the gleaming, super-thin laptop by accident but, rather, following years of refinement, during which time laptops, even lightweight ones, have become familiar.

The mark of a great technology is that, when it is here, we barely remember all the steps and phases of its advance. Driverless cars are already at Level 2, the mid-point of a five-tier journey toward fully autonomous vehicles mapped out two years ago by the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration. And they got there without people realizing we are already halfway there.

Many people express concern about driverless cars. But driver aids like the ones available today will play a vital role in conditioning the public to accepting full autonomy when it eventually arrives, which research firm Navigant forecasts to be in 2035 for three-quarters of new cars sold.

Sales are half the problem when it comes to people anticipating the shock of the new instead of a natural evolution. As one of the most expensive purchases you will ever make, the car upgrade cycle is far less frequent than, say, your mobile phone. Millions of us are driving around without thinking about the benefits bestowed by the latest driver aids, or even long-accepted ones like cruise control.

This naturally makes talk of autonomous vehicles considerably more futuristic than for customers whose 2014 car parked itself and avoided a fender bender on this morning’s commute. It is, perhaps, no wonder that willingness to ride in a driverless car is higher in Brazil, India and China than in western countries. After all, the growing population of wealthy consumers in these fast-growing economies have been buying cars for the first time — cars that include some of the very latest technologies. The jump to full autonomy is not as big a leap as it used to be.

The present and future of driverless cars offers lessons for all technology industries. To win consumer interest, release often and focus on selling convenience and safety today, not a distant alien technology tomorrow.

When we look back on the evolution of vehicle autonomy through the rear-view mirror, we’ll be hard-pressed to find a single, defining moment. Like all of today’s technology, every step is just another mile in the road.