In the past five years, autonomous driving has gone from “maybe possible” to “definitely possible” to “inevitable” to “how did anyone ever think this wasn’t inevitable?” Every significant automaker is pursuing the tech, eager to rebrand and rebuild itself as a “mobility provider” before the idea of car ownership goes kaput. (Waymo, the company that emerged from Google’s self-driving car project, has been at it the longest, but its monopoly has eroded of late. Ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber are hustling to dismiss the profit-gobbling human drivers who now shuttle their users about. Tech giants like Intel, IBM, and Apple are looking to carve off their slice of the pie as well. Countless hungry startups have materialized to fill niches in a burgeoning ecosystem, focusing on laser sensors, compressing mapping data, and setting up service centers to maintain the vehicles.
And cars that drive themselves are now everywhere. They’re prowling the streets of California and Michigan, Paris and London, Singapore and Beijing. This 21st-century gold rush is motivated by the intertwined forces of opportunity and survival instinct. By one account, driverless tech will add $7 trillion to the global economy and save hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few decades. Simultaneously, it will devastate the auto industry and its associated gas stations, drive-thrus, taxi drivers, and truckers. Some people will prosper. Most will benefit. Many will be left behind.
It’s worth remembering that when automobiles first started rumbling down manure-clogged streets, people called them “horseless carriages.” The moniker made sense: Here were vehicles that did what carriages did, minus the hooves. By the time “car” caught on as a term, the invention had become something entirely new. Over a century, it reshaped how humanity moves, and thus how (and where and with whom) humanity lives. This cycle has restarted, and the term “driverless car” will soon seem as anachronistic as “horseless carriage.” We don’t know how cars that don’t need human chauffeurs will mold society, but we can be sure a similar gear shift is on the way.
The First Self-Driving Cars
Just over a decade ago, the idea of being chauffeured around by a string of zeros and ones was ludicrous to pretty much everybody who wasn’t at an abandoned Air Force base outside Los Angeles, watching a dozen driverless cars glide through real traffic. That event was the Urban Challenge, the third and final competition for autonomous vehicles put on by Darpa, the Pentagon’s skunkworks arm.
At the time, America’s military-industrial complex had already thrown vast sums and years of research trying to make unmanned trucks. It had laid a foundation for this technology, but stalled when it came to making a vehicle that could drive at practical speeds, through all the hazards of the real world. So, Darpa figured, maybe someone else—someone outside the DOD’s standard roster of contractors, someone not tied to a list of detailed requirements but striving for a slightly crazy goal—could put it all together. It invited the whole world to build a vehicle that could drive across California’s Mojave Desert, and whoever’s robot did it the fastest would get a million-dollar prize.
Great for spotting things like lane lines on the highway, speed signs, and traffic lights. Some developers think that, with better machine vision, they can use cameras to identify everything they see and navigate accordingly.
The spinning thing you see on top of most self-driving cars is lidar (that’s “light detection and ranging”). It fires out millions of laser beams every second, measures how long they take to bounce back, and uses the data to build a 3-D map that’s more precise than what radar offers and easier for a computer to understand than a 2-D camera image. It’s also crazy expensive, hard to manufacture at scale, and nowhere near robust enough for a life of potholes and extreme temperatures. Good thing dozens of startups and tech giants are pouring millions of dollars into fixing all that.
At its simplest, this artificial intelligence tool trains computers to do things like detect lane lines and identify cyclists by showing them millions of examples of the subject at hand. Because the world is too complex to write a rule for every possible scenario, it’s key to have cars that can learn from experience and figure out how to navigate on their own.
Before a robocar takes to the streets, its parent company will use cameras and lidars to map its territory in extreme detail. That reference document helps the car verify its sensor readings, and it is key for any vehicle looking to know its own location, down to the centimeter—something standard GPS can’t offer.
A regular presence in cars since the late 1990s, radars bounce radio waves around to see their surrounding and are especially good at spotting big metallic objects—other vehicles. They’re cheap, reliable, and don’t sweat things like fog, rain, or snow.
The 2004 Grand Challenge was something of a mess. Each team grabbed some combination of the sensors and computers available at the time, wrote their own code, and welded their own hardware, looking for the right recipe that would take their vehicle across 142 miles of sand and dirt of the Mojave. The most successful vehicle went just seven miles. Most crashed, flipped, or rolled over within sight of the starting gate. But the race created a community of people—geeks, dreamers, and lots of students not yet jaded by commercial enterprise—who believed the robot drivers people had been craving for nearly forever were possible
They came back for a follow-up race in 2005 and proved that making a car drive itself was indeed possible: Five vehicles finished the course. By the 2007 Urban Challenge, the vehicles were not just avoiding obstacles and sticking to trails but following traffic laws, merging, parking, even making safe, legal U-turns.
When Google launched its self-driving car project in 2009, it started by hiring a team of Darpa Challenge veterans. Within 18 months, they had built a system that could handle some of California’s toughest roads (including the famously winding block of San Francisco’s Lombard Street) with minimal human involvement. A few years later, Elon Musk announced Tesla would build a self-driving system into its cars. And the proliferation of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft weakened the link between being in a car and owning that car, helping set the stage for a day when actually driving that car falls away too. In 2015, Uber even poached dozens of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University—a robotics and artificial intelligence powerhouse—to get its effort going.
After a few years, the technology reached a point where no automaker could ignore it. Companies like Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, Mercedes, and the rest started pouring billions into their own R&D. The tech giants followed, as did an armada of startups: Hundreds of small companies are now rushing to offer improved radars, cameras, lidars, maps, data management systems, and more to the big fish. The race is on.
The Future of Self-Driving Cars
Let’s start with the question you definitely want to ask: When will self-driving cars take over? Answer: wrong question. The autonomous vehicle is not a single device that someday will be ready and start shipping. It’s a system, a collection of inventions applied in a novel way. And, remember, the advance of the original car was constrained and shaped by forces like the growth of the road network and the availability of gasoline. The takeover of the self-driving car will depend on a new set of questions—the questions you should be asking.
When will self-driving technology be ready? That may, improbably, prove the easiest bit of making this real for the people whose lives it will affect. The hardware, to start, is mostly there. Cameras and radars are already cheap and robust enough to build into mass-market cars. Laser-shooting lidar is still pricey, but dozens of startups and major companies are racing to bring its cost to heel. Chipmakers like Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia are pushing down power requirements for these rolling supercomputers.
A Photographic History of Self-Driving Cars
The real job is to endlessly improve the software (powered by machine learning) used by those computers to correctly interpret the data from all those sensors. That’s why Ford invested a billion dollars into artificial intelligence outfit Argo AI, why General Motors bought a startup called Cruise, why Waymo has driven four million autonomous miles on public roads. Safe driving requires more than just knowing that a person is over there; you also have to know that said person is riding a bicycle, how they’re likely to act, and how to respond. That’s hard for a robot, but these budding Terminators are getting better, fast.
Next question: Can we build and operate these things en masse? The huge automakers that build millions of cars a year rely on the complex, precise interaction of dozens or hundreds of companies, the folks who provide all the bits and bobs that go into a car, and the services to keep them running. They need dealers to sell the things, gas pumps or charging stations to fuel them, body shops to fix them, parking lots to store them. The folks who want to offer autonomous vehicles need to rethink interactions and processes built up over a century. Waymo has partnered with Avis to take care of its fleet of driverless minivans in Arizona, and it’s working with a startup called Trov to insure them. GM is rejiggering one of its production plants to pump out Chevrolet Bolts without steering wheels or pedals. Lidar maker Velodyne opened a “megafactory” in San Jose. Federal regulators are considering ways to certify vehicles that don’t conform to safety standards written with human drivers in mind. Various would-be providers are drawing up plans for operations centers, where humans can keep track of their robo-fleets and cater to customers or cars in need.
And it’s not if these things will be deployed, but how. To start, forget the idea of owning a fully self-driving vehicle. You can go out today and buy a car that handles highway driving for you, but the idea of a car that can handle any situation, anywhere you want to go, is decades off. Instead, expect to see these robocars debut in taxi-like fleets, operating in limited conditions and areas, so their operators can avoid particularly tricky intersections and make sure everything is mapped in excruciating detail. To take a ride, you’ll likely have to use predetermined pickup and dropoff points, so your car can always pull over safely and legally. Meanwhile, the people making these cars will be tackling knotty, practical questions. They’ll be figuring out how much to charge so they can recoup the R&D costs, but not so much to dissuade potential riders. They’ll wrangle with regulators and insurance companies, and what to do in the inevitable event of a crash that brings in the lawyers and legislators and safety advocates. And then, they’ll have to figure out how to expand—which is when the real competition begins. Uber and Ford and Waymo and GM may all start in different cities, but soon, they’ll start fighting for turf. You know how fiercely Uber and Lyft fight for market share now, tracking drivers, trying to undercut each other, and piling up promotions to bring in riders? Now imagine that same fight with several times more competitors.
Here’s the question everyone should really be asking: How will this technology change your life? Well, your ride to the airport will get cheaper and safer. Your pizza will show up in a human-free robot, no tipping required. Your highway commute will become less of a drag. But that’s the basic stuff, the horseless carriage.
The truth is, it’s hard to imagine what people will do once vehicles can move about on their own, and once these things are so efficient that the cost of transportation falls to something approaching zero. It’s easy to conjure up a dystopia, a world where robocars encourage sprawl, everyone lives 100 miles from their job, and sends their self-driving servants to do their errands and clog our streets. The optimists imagine a new kind of utopian city, where this technology not only eliminates crashes but integrates with existing public transit and remains affordable for all users. Like the internet, these vehicles will reflect some of our worse impulses, but also channel our best.
Robocars Could Add $7 Trillion to the Global Economy
Autonomous tech isn’t just poised to generate piles of cash for whoever can harness it—it will fundamentally change one in every nine American jobs. The good news is that this tech will also create new waves of jobs, much like the rise of the automobile helped yielded new forms of employment, like office park construction workers and pizza delivery drivers. If you want a job in this new, self-driven economy, your best bets are IT and data crunching.
As Self-Driving Cars Approach, the Auto Industry Rushes to Rebuild
Automotive supply chains span tiers of companies scattered around the globe. Automakers are constantly seeking to reduce cost and complexity—and increase profit—by joining forces with the folks whose strengths match their weaknesses. Now the industry is building the supply chains and partnerships that well help it push into a new self-driving age, one that demands manufacturing expertise, artificial intelligence know-how, mapping skills, piles of cash, and more.
The Very Human Problem Blocking the Path to Self-Driving Cars
Maybe you’ve heard about Tesla’s Autopilot, Cadillac’s Supercruise, or Nissan’s ProPilot—systems in otherwise conventional cars that let the machine drive itself in limited situations, with human supervision. Sounds great, right? Yes, until you hear about the handoff problem. Making a semiautonomous car means designing a vehicle that doesn’t just drive itself but knows what its human is up to—and how to get them to take the wheel when needed.
Preparing Self-Driving Cars for the World’s Most Chaotic Cities
Robots love rules. Stop here. Yield there. Go this speed. But navigating a human-filled world means knowing how to bend those dicta, how to negotiate with other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and others. That’s especially true in cities in developing countries, where traffic laws don’t hold much sway. So how can you possible make a car that can handle driving in India, or Lebanon, or Vietnam? It’s an important problem to solve: Chaotic cities are where car crashes claim the most lives and where safer robots could make the biggest difference.
Lawyers, Not Ethicists, Will Solve the Robocar ‘Trolley Problem’
Giving machines the ability to decide who to kill is a staple of dystopian science fiction, and explains why three out of four American drivers say they are afraid of self-driving cars. But worries over the “trolley problem”—in a situation where a crash is unavoidable, how does the robot decide whom to hit?—might have already been solved. One Stanford researcher says the law has preempted the problem, because the companies building these cars will be “less concerned with esoteric questions of right and wrong than with concrete questions of predictive legal liability.” Meaning, lawyers and lawmakers will sort things out.
What Does Tesla’s Automated Semi Mean for Truckers?
Elon Musk is building a truck, and like other Tesla vehicles this semi will be able to handle itself on the highway. He’s not the only one trying to throw the driver out of the cab—and threaten 3 million solid middle-class American jobs in the process. So what does the future look like for truck drivers? That kind of depends on how you define trucking. Because autonomous big rigs aren't going to be 100 percent autonomous, at least not in the near or medium future.
Google’s Self-Driving Car Company Is Finally Here
Seven years after kickstarting the self-driving industry, Google’s self-driving car project became its own company under the Alphabet umbrella: Waymo. Now the company is rushing toward commercializing its miracle movers. "We're a self-driving car company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to get around," says CEO John Krafcik. What that means, exactly, is still an open question—perhaps as much for Waymo as for the rest of us.
The Uber v. Waymo Showdown Looms: Here’s What You Need to Know
In any burgeoning industry where lots of people are trying to make lots of money, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets sued. And the first legal showdown of the robocar era is a doozy: In February 2017, Waymo filed suit against Uber, accusing it of stealing reams of its intellectual property and using it to boost its lagging effort to develop self-driving cars. After a few delays, the jury trial is set to begin in February. Uber, of course, says it did no such thing. Here’s what you need to know to follow along.
This guide was last updated on January 31, 2018.
Enjoyed this deep dive? Check out more WIRED Guides.