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Monday, April 27, 2020

When Are the Self-Driving Cars Coming?

Robocars were supposed to be ready by now. Why can’t we use them yet and when can we expect them on the streets?

Car companies have been testing and perfecting for years now. We kept getting promises of self-driving vehicles chauffeuring us around by 2019, then 2020. Grandma and Grandpa have failing eyesight, and their kids are fed up with negotiating through traffic as cities and towns become more congested. Driving at night is getting harder for many older adults. Baby boomers are ready to sleep while the car does the work. But where are the cars?

Timelines Pushed Back

Tesla, Waymo and Cruise all had us champing at the bit, but they have pushed back their timelines. Leaders in the industry have revised their expectations after realizing how many details have to move into place before driverless cars are a reality.

In early 2019, Ford CEO Jim Hackett admitted: “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles."

Avideh Zakhor, a University of California at Berkeley professor in the electrical engineering and computer sciences department, explains what happened:

“There was a sense maybe a year or two ago, that ‘Oh, our algorithms are so good! We’re ready to launch. We’re gonna launch driverless cars any minute.’ And then obviously there’s been the setbacks of people getting killed or accidents happening, and now we’re a lot more cautious.”

The Five Levels of Automation

  • Level 1 automation means that some small steering or acceleration tasks are performed by the car without human intervention, but everything else is fully under human control.

  • Level 2 automation is like advance cruise control or original autopilot system on some Tesla vehicles. The car can automatically take safety actions, but the driver needs to stay alert at the wheel.

  • Level 3 automation still requires a human driver, but the human is able to outsource some “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. This poses some potential dangers as humans pass the major tasks of driving to or from the car itself, which is why some car companies are interested in jumping directly to Level 4.

  • Level 4 automation is a car that can drive itself almost all the time without any human input but might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather. This is a car you could sleep in.

  • Level 5 automation means full automation in all road and weather conditions.

Flying Cars Are Coming

That’s right. Flying cars are no longer merely the product of sci-fi movies as partners Hyundai and Uber showed off a model of their concept vehicle to take ride sharing to the next level—literally—at the latest Consumer Electronics Show. The Hyundai S-A1 would carry passengers at 180 miles per hour. Looking like a cross between a jet and a giant drone, the SA-1 got a lot of attention.

“We’re looking at the dawn of a completely new era that opens the skies above our cities,” Jaiwon Shin, the head of Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility division, said at the announcement. “We will be able to fly on demand—just imagine that.”


Although accidents have been few and far between, driverless vehicles are held to high standards. As of the end of 2019, 41 states had enacted legislation or signed executive orders curbing the testing and use of autonomous vehicles. Some automakers are going beyond miles on the road for testing vehicles, and have added simulated situations that are rarely found in real life to prepare cars for the limits of what they may encounter.

Aurora CEO and co-founder Chris Urmson talked about how valuable this testing is:

“We can create situations that we’re basically never going to see or very rarely see. So, for example, we might want to simulate what happens as a bicycle comes through an intersection, runs a red light and crashes into the side of our car. Turns out that doesn’t happen very often in the real world, but we want to know that if that happens, our vehicles are going to do something safe ... we’re basically allowing the car to practice up in the cloud instead of on the road. And at the end of the day the training that happens online turns into better and better performance offline.”

Currently about 40,000 people per year are killed on the roads in the U.S., with human error responsible for 90% of those crashes. Some say that when autonomous vehicles are able to cause fewer accidents than the 50th percentile driver on the road, it’s time to bring them on. Tesla founder Elon Musk has said that it is irresponsible not to have these vehicles traveling when they are safer than human drivers.

Expected Arrival

“We expect Level 4 vehicles to be feasible in small quantities within the next five years,” Urmson said. “What that means is you’ll probably see hundreds or maybe thousands of vehicles out either delivering packages or moving people through neighborhoods, or maybe hauling goods on our freeways.”

Most experts think that ride services and package delivery by autonomous car will be here years ahead of personal vehicles.

“It’s going to be around that decade-plus before that is going to be an option for consumers to purchase a self-driving vehicle,” said Kristin Kolodge, executive director, driver interaction and human machine interface research at J.D. Power.

In fact, a recent survey found that auto and tech industry experts set the timeline for having one of these in your garage at around 12 years, when less than 10% of all vehicles will drive themselves. Robotaxis, however, should be common by 2025.

Sounds like baby boomers will get to benefit from robotic cars, just not quite as soon as we thought. For the time being, look for more delivery vehicles to be operated without humans at the wheel. In short order, ride-sharing vehicles with no driver will whisk you to your destination—and you won’t even have to tip!

Click below for the other articles in the April 2020 Senior Spirit