Self-Driving Cars? They're Here Now. And Lots More Besides.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 10, 2017

LISBON, PORTUGAL—This is a connected, startup nation, so it makes a great location for the Irish-originated Web Summit. The only problem in a beautiful country where the weather is good, the food is cheap and the landscape stunning is the traffic. It stinks, with a rush hour that rivals Bangkok.

An eager Web Summit overflow crowd awaits the arrival of Al Gore, who ended the events with a fiery speech. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Las Vegas is the same, of course, and the congestion really gets bad during the big Consumer Electronics Show. The Web Summit is the European version of that, with a similar growing interest in cars (especially the autonomous, connected and electric varieties). Automakers, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz, see being at the Web Summit a must, just as they do CES.

Al Gore, offering both doomsday scenarios and hope, at the Web Summit in Portugal. (Web Summit photo)

In fact, John Krafcik, CEO of Google spinoff Waymo, chose Lisbon’s conference to announce that it is putting a fleet of driverless cars on the road in Phoenix. Local residents will be offered rides, and initially they’ll be free.

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, announcing Waymo cars without drivers on the roads of Arizona. (Our fans in Arizona have been complaining for years about other drivers who aren't all there; this is a bit different.) (Web Summit photo)

Waymo has driven 3.5 million miles autonomously, always with a safety driver behind the wheel, and now it thinks it can walk the tightrope without a net. “We’ve gotten to the point of confidence, and that allowed us to go forward in Phoenix,” he said.

There was so much happening with autonomy here. George Hotz of Comma.ai (who hacked Play Stations and iPhones as a teenager) gave a fast-talking speech, the gist of was that owners of Toyotas and Hondas can, right now, download free open-source software and transform their humdrum commuter rides into crude but effective self-driving cars. It’s called OpenPilot, and it’s designed to give your car lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. “You can’t barcode driving—it’s a journey and a dance,” Hotz said. “Our work is helping to train self-driving cars for the road.”

Here's Hotz on Bloomberg explaining why he's giving away his self-driving software:

“The OpenPilot codebase has been written to be concise and enable rapid prototyping,” we’re informed on the company website. The company shows users of the latest version of its software out there on the road, letting their Hondas rip with hands off the wheel. I dunno, it seems a little problematic to me, asking people to try out the software in public—even with a safety driver behind the wheel. Hotz also showed a map with Xs where bugs had been encountered, and fixed via the open-source community. I'd rather have the bugs fixed before I try it out. Guess I'm not an early adopter then.

A Toyota guy reminded me that owners do this kind of testing at their own risk—if you hack your car’s operating system, it’s quite likely to void the warranty. 

I thought it was just Airbus that is experimenting with vertical takeoff and landing autonomous electric sky taxis, but another company, Volocopter, is also doing it. Similar to Airbus’ idea, the planes are like big drones crossed with helicopters, and they’ll pick people up—even in the middle of crowded cities—and then whisk them where they want to go, all without a pilot. It’s the taxi of the future.

Alexander Zosel of Volocopter said they’d be in service in three to five years. The company recently did a fully autonomous flight in Dubai, which is fast becoming a test bed for new technology. The Dubai ride was only five minutes, but the German company hopes to carry passengers aloft for up to 30 minutes. Taxi service will be booked through an app, and launched at Voloports near you.

The made-in-Germany Volocopter in all its autonomous flying glory. (Volocopter photo)

“We almost don’t need roads anymore,” said Francois Chopard of Starburst, which funds the flying taxis. “There are no traffic problems in the sky.” At least not yet. 

Coming soon! The very cool electric Uniti! (Jim Motavalli photo)

New electric vehicle introductions are continuing. I loved the new entry from Sweden, the Uniti. It’s a small urban commuter car that can get to 50 mph in 3.5 seconds and—with a carbon fiber and composite body—weighs only around 1,000 pounds. It can take an 80 percent charge in 15 minutes.

Relaxing with BMW's snazzy i8 at the Web Summit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Joy Chen is a Californian environmentalist and tree hugger who was so taken with the Uniti that she moved to Sweden to help bring it into the world. “The Uniti grew out of work at Lund University,” she told me. “The company was launched just two years ago. We’re finishing the first prototype now.” Deliveries are to start in 2019, at a price in Europe of 25,000 euros ($29,000 currently).

Lewis Horne (that's his hand) showing off the Uniti's joystick-type steering. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Later, I saw Uniti’s CEO, the energetic Lewis Horne, demonstrate the car’s joystick-type steering (which will be optional) on the Auto Tech stage. “The twin handles give you great haptic feedback,” he said.  The Uniti will get a big launch in Sweden on December 7.

The Boostmi team, Spencer (left) and Yves-Emmanuel, at the Web Summit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I talked to Canadians Spencer Pringle and Yves-Emmanuel Toussaint of Boostmi, about their new roadside service app. The Boostmi part is about joining a network that gives stranded motorists jump starts. What a cool idea. They even provide participants with portable remote starters. And they also have roadside assistance with no membership fee--you just pay if you actually use it. AAA and CAA will have a fit.  

Rimac's Monica Mikac talked about the company funding its supercars by selling its made-in-Croatia tech to other manufacturers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On my own panel about connected trucks and fleets was Yuki Liu, co-founder of the Silicon Valley-based OSVehicle. It gives us a view of future cars—open source, modular, customizable, electric—and it sits on a platform OSV is making available to automakers around the world. Change a few things around and it’s a truck or a sedan, and before it wears out panels can be swapped out to make it last, well, forever.

OSVehicle's modular platform can be first base for other EV startups. (OSVehicle photo)

That’s important for shared electric fleets, because they’re going to be on the road far more than our private cars (which sit 95 percent of the time). As Daniela Gerd tom Markotten, the CEO of Daimler’s Moovel, said on my panel, even today’s trucks are only used 35 percent of the time. Imagine, though, that all our cars are shared, picking up people all the time, thus drastically reducing congestion and the need for giving up our critical urban space to cars. Parking lots and garages will become parks and pedestrian malls. And isn’t that a beautiful vision.


Get the Car Talk Newsletter



Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One