We are in the first days of a revolution in transportation and your Uber driver’s days are numbered.
It’s no secret that Google has been developing self-driving vehicles for years. In 2011, Nevada became the first state to allow autonomous cars to operate on its roads, and seven other states have since followed suit, but recently, the chase to develop the first fully-autonomous, self-driving car has become a full-blown arms race.
Today, Uber announced plans to unleash their first self-driving cars on the city of Pittsburgh, later this month.
In 2015, Google announced plans to move into the rideshare business. In 2016, Uber announced plans to map the world, with a $500-million dollar initial investment, so they wouldn’t have to rely on Google Maps data. Today, Uber announced plans to unleash their first self-driving cars (albeit with an onboard engineer to “monitor” the car’s progress, for now) on the city of Pittsburgh, later this month. Google’s self-driving cars have already driven more than 1.5 million miles, and are on the road right now in California, Texas, Washington, and Arizona. Tesla’s cars have driven 100-million miles in autopilot mode, but they recently became the first company to have a fatality when one of its cars hit a truck and killed the passenger.
The automakers have already seen the writing on the wall. Since ease of access to transportation is likely to increase when rideshare companies have fleets of low-overhead driverless cars on the road, and car ownership is likely to drop, the automakers are eager to partner up with our future robot overlords. Volvo has an agreement to sell cars to Uber, Toyota has invested in the company, and GM has purchased a stake in Lyft.
The rideshare/taxi companies aren’t the only industries diving into autonomous transportation, either. Driverless trucks are already on the road in Australia, and former Google execs have launched a startup, Otto, to make long-haul truck drivers a thing of the past with autonomous 18-wheelers. It is a wave, and it’s coming. If you drive for a living, now is the time to go back to school.
I had a discussion with a woman this morning about the forthcoming revolution of driverless taxis, and she was aghast. “I think I might have to stop using Uber,” she said. While I understand the sentiment–the fear of things new–I don’t understand why people are surprised that driverless cars are finally upon us (no pun intended, pedestrians). Technological advances that take tasks from drivers have been happening with increasing frequency, starting perhaps with the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission in 1939-1940, the mainstream debut of cruise control in 1958, and more recently, brake assist, lane-centering, and perimeter/proximity monitoring systems. I just recently got my first car with “adaptive cruise control,” a system that slows the car when there is slower traffic ahead and then resumes full-cruise speed when the lane clears, and it was after I got used to it (I hated it at first) that I had a realization… it’s all these baby steps that are leading us to self-driving cars.
There are still a few obstacles to be overcome, the largest of which is high-precision GPS. Right now, ordinary global positioning is only accurate to 6 to 10 feet. As a result, our present generation of autonomous vehicles are heavily reliant on onboard cameras and environmental sensing technology to stay in their lane and avoid collisions. There are high precision GPS systems out there, accurate to a centimeter, but they are very expensive. The day is coming, however, that high precision GPS will be affordable, and when that day comes, driverless cars and trucks will be safer than ever, and less reliant on lane markings and environmental cues.
In the next 5 years, you’ll likely start seeing driverless cars with regularity, maybe you’ll even ride in one. In the next 10 years, there will be a substantial number of them on the road, and most, if not all of the US States will have legalized them. Who knows, in the next 20 to 50 years, driverless cars might outnumber cars with drivers. Eventually, far in the future, some tech company with a penchant for nostalgia will come along with a revolutionary idea–a rideshare company with real human drivers–and some customer with a fear of change will say “I don’t think I can ride with them anymore. Do you know how unreliable human drivers are?”