Self-driving cars are coming, make no mistake. But there’s a lot of loose talk on the subject, and it’s important that we get the timetable right. If the ideal is sitting in the back seat and watching movies on your iPad, as the car does all the work—we’re talking about 2035.
Carmakers are throwing around 2020 as a date, but it’s not a significant one—that year we might see a few cars that can, under some circumstances, drive themselves down a highway. But you’ll still be sitting in the driver’s seat ready to take over at any minute. Consider that just an advanced form of the adaptive cruise control in new vehicles now. The car will be able to handle some traffic congestion stop-and-go, and follow other cars on the thruway, braking when necessary and staying in the correct lane.
My authority is none other than Alberto Broggi, a senior member of the respected IEEE (electric and electronics engineers) international trade group. IEEE predicted in 2012 that 75 percent of the vehicles on the road by 2040 will be autonomous. You won’t even need a driver’s license at that point.
Broggi, a computer engineering professor at the University of Parma in Italy, practices what he preaches. In 2010, his team sent two driverless cars from Italy to Shangai. Last year, Broggi put a sedan through a long drive through Parma, at one point without anybody in the driver’s seat.
“When you talk about just moving down the highway, we’re already very close and have all the necessary technology,” Broggi told me. “But if you want door-to-door urban mobility, something like a driverless taxi, 2035 is a good estimate. We’re not close to that yet. People expect full autonomy is possible tomorrow, but it isn’t—what’s viable now is limited autonomy.”
Broggi says that Google’s latest self-driving car, with no steering wheel, accelerator or brakes, is “amazing” and “disruptive.” I agree—it’s the first concept that starts from scratch, going beyond what we traditionally think of as a car. Tomorrow’s cars won’t have driver’s seats; they’ll just have seats, and who says they’ll face forward—why not set them up like a living room, with two rows facing each other?
Broggi said smart self-driving cars can be on the road even if most of the other vehicles are dumb. “We can live without all cars being able to talk to each other, though it means more technology and more sensors,” he said. An autonomous car in that scenario would have to “see” all the traffic around it (with sensors, cameras and radar), and make instant predictions about how it’s going to behave.
IEEE released the results of a study of 200 students, researchers and experts who are working in the field. A majority believes that by 2035 driverless cars will be produced in the steering-wheel-free Google mode. More than half think that sensors will be the central technology. And the biggest obstacles will be legal liability, policymaker blockage and consumer acceptance. Three quarters think that autonomous vehicles will be legal in all 50 states by 2035 (just four plus the District of Columbia allow them now). Here's a look at the Italian self-driving road test: