Driverless Cars Are Already Here


Image Credits:

Jens Wohltorf


Jens Wohltorf is the CEO of professional driver service Blacklane.

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. 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.

More TechCrunch

Microsoft announced on Tuesday during its annual Build conference that it’s bringing “Windows Volumetric Apps” to Meta Quest headsets. The partnership will allow Microsoft to bring Windows 365 and local…

Microsoft’s new ‘Volumetric Apps’ for Quest headsets extend Windows apps into the 3D space

The spam reached Bluesky by first crossing over two other decentralized networks: Mastodon and Nostr.

The ‘vote Trump’ spam that hit Bluesky in May came from decentralized rival Nostr

Welcome to TechCrunch Fintech! This week, we’re looking at the continued fallout from Synapse’s bankruptcy, how Layer wants to disrupt SMB accounting, and much more! To get a roundup of…

There’s a real appetite for a fintech alternative to QuickBooks

The company is hoping to produce electricity at $13 per megawatt hour, which would be more than 50% cheaper than traditional onshore wind.

Bill Gates-backed wind startup AirLoom is raising $12M, filings reveal

Generative AI makes stuff up. It can be biased. Sometimes it spits out toxic text. So can it be “safe”? Rick Caccia, the CEO of WitnessAI, believes it can. “Securing…

WitnessAI is building guardrails for generative AI models

It’s not often that you hear about a seed round above $10 million. H, a startup based in Paris and previously known as Holistic AI, has announced a $220 million…

French AI startup H raises $220M seed round

Hey there, Series A to B startups with $35 million or less in funding — we’ve got an exciting opportunity that’s tailor-made for your growth journey! If you’re looking to…

Boost your startup’s growth with a ScaleUp package at TC Disrupt 2024

TikTok is pulling out all the stops to prevent its impending ban in the United States. Aside from initiating legal action against the U.S. government, that means shaping up its…

As a US ban looms, TikTok announces a $1M program for socially driven creators

Microsoft wants to put its Copilot everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before Microsoft renames its annual Build developer conference to Microsoft Copilot. Hopefully, some of those upcoming events…

Microsoft’s Power Automate no-code platform adds AI flows

Build is Microsoft’s largest developer conference and of course, it’s all about AI this year. So it’s no surprise that GitHub’s Copilot, GitHub’s “AI pair programming tool,” is taking center…

GitHub Copilot gets extensions

Microsoft wants to make its brand of generative AI more useful for teams — specifically teams across corporations and large enterprise organizations. This morning at its annual Build dev conference,…

Microsoft intros a Copilot for teams

Microsoft’s big focus at this year’s Build conference is generative AI. And to that end, the tech giant announced a series of updates to its platforms for building generative AI-powered…

Microsoft upgrades its AI app-building platforms

The U.K.’s data protection watchdog has closed an almost year-long investigation of Snap’s AI chatbot, My AI — saying it’s satisfied the social media firm has addressed concerns about risks…

UK data protection watchdog ends privacy probe of Snap’s GenAI chatbot, but warns industry

U.S. cell carrier Patriot Mobile experienced a data breach that included subscribers’ personal information, including full names, email addresses, home ZIP codes and account PINs, TechCrunch has learned. Patriot Mobile,…

Conservative cell carrier Patriot Mobile hit by data breach

It’s been three years since Spotify acquired live audio startup Betty Labs, and yet the music streaming service isn’t leveraging the technology to its fullest potential — at least not…

Spotify’s ‘Listening Party’ feature falls short of expectations

Alchemist Accelerator has a new pile of AI-forward companies demoing their wares today, if you care to watch, and the program itself is making some international moves into Tokyo and…

Alchemist’s latest batch puts AI to work as accelerator expands to Tokyo, Doha

“Late Pledge” allows campaign creators to continue collecting money even after the campaign has closed.

Kickstarter now lets you pledge after a campaign closes

Stack AI’s co-founders, Antoni Rosinol and Bernardo Aceituno, were PhD students at MIT wrapping up their degrees in 2022 just as large language models were becoming more mainstream. ChatGPT would…

Stack AI wants to make it easier to build AI-fueled workflows

Pinecone, the vector database startup founded by Edo Liberty, the former head of Amazon’s AI Labs, has long been at the forefront of helping businesses augment large language models (LLMs)…

Pinecone launches its serverless vector database out of preview

Young geothermal energy wells can be like budding prodigies, each brimming with potential to outshine their peers. But like people, most decline with age. In California, for example, the amount…

Special mud helps XGS Energy get more power out of geothermal wells

Featured Article

Sonos finally made some headphones

The market play is clear from the outset: The $449 headphones are firmly targeted at an audience that would otherwise be purchasing the Bose QC Ultra or Apple AirPods Max.

7 hours ago
Sonos finally made some headphones

Adobe says the feature is up to the task, regardless of how complex of a background the object is set against.

Adobe brings Firefly AI-powered Generative Remove to Lightroom

All cars suffer when the mercury drops, but electric vehicles suffer more than most as heaters draw more power and batteries charge more slowly as the liquid electrolyte inside thickens.…

Porsche Ventures invests in battery startup South 8 to boost cold-weather EV performance

Scale AI has raised a $1 billion Series F round from a slew of big-name institutional and corporate investors including Amazon and Meta.

Data-labeling startup Scale AI raises $1B as valuation doubles to $13.8B

The new coalition, Tech Against Scams, will work together to find ways to fight back against the tools used by scammers and to better educate the public against financial scams.

Meta, Match, Coinbase and others team up to fight online fraud and crypto scams

It’s a wrap: European Union lawmakers have given the final approval to set up the bloc’s flagship, risk-based regulations for artificial intelligence.

EU Council gives final nod to set up risk-based regulations for AI

London-based fintech Vitesse has closed a $93 million Series C round of funding led by investment giant KKR.

Vitesse, a payments and treasury management platform for insurers, raises $93M to fuel US expansion

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future