This Week in the Future of Cars: Trial and Error

No one said it would be easy. As automakers, developers, and tech companies pump funds into self-driving, electric, and yes, flying cars, there were bound to be some mistakes along the way. This week, we got a look at a few. A few hours into its first day on the job, a Las Vegas autonomous shuttle got in a fender-bender with a (human-driven) truck. Electric vehicles are facing down a threat in the shape of the Republican tax plan, which could do away with federal subsidies—not quite an industry-buster, but grim news for the burgeoning American EV sector.

In the “trial” column, we have actual driverless cars zooming around Arizona, Uber’s newest bid to make flying cars a reality in Los Angeles, and some German researchers who are not afraid to get goofy in their quest to understand AVs. Let’s get your caught up.

And straddling the two, we have a look back at the Darpa Grand Challenges, the trio of geek-glorifying races that took the idea of driverless cars from "LOL" to "IRL," with more than a few bloopers along the way.


Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week

  • “Dude, where's my flying car?” you ask. “In Los Angeles,” Uber replies. The ridehailing service announced it will launch at least a few of these new, electric-powered gizmos. The plan needs a serious boost from regulators to get in the air, Jack reports, but the crazy part is how un-crazy this really is.

  • File this one under “the future is here”: Alex's take on Waymo’s announcement that it will put members of the public in self-driving cars in the next few months—with no human at the wheel to take control if things go wrong.

  • Pushing ahead like this is crucial, according to researchers from the RAND Corporation. Their newest paper uses statistics to show that even self-driving cars that are just 10 percent safer than human drivers will save lives in the long-run. Put these things on the road ASAP, they argue.

  • AVs will need a bit of public relations help, which is why researchers from Daimler's Moovel Lab decided to roll a mile in their tires. Their Rover setup is meant to help normies understand how self-driving cars see, Jack reports, building a little bit of old-fashioned human empathy in the process.

  • Where do autonomous vehicles come from, anyway? Check out Alex Davies' trip back to 2007, for a deep dive into the Pentagon-sponsored Darpa Grand Challenges that jump-started today's booming self-driving car industry.

  • Porsche’s challenge to its engineers: Build a comfortable, practical SUV, without losing the prowess you get from a Porsche sports car. Mission accomplished, according to Eric Adams, who explored the clever tricks that make the 2018 Cayenne drive like a 911.

  • Koenigsegg's Agera RS became the world's fastest production car when it hit an insane 277.9 mph last weekend. The tiny Swedish supercar outfit won’t exactly reveal how it got it done, but as Jack points out, they had to push—if not break—the laws of physics.

  • The House tax plan nixes the $7,500 federal electric car subsidy. What does that mean for the small but steadily growing EV industry? Nothing great, I report.

WIRED's Mini-Doc of the Week

Have a spare 15 minutes? To mark the 10th anniversary of the Darpa Urban Challenge that kicked off the age self-driving cars, we made this video telling the tale.

Required Reading

News from elsewhere on the internet.

In the Rearview

Essential stories from WIRED’s canon.

This week, we mulled over what could happen if a totally unprepared auto industry got itself into a terrible self-driving car crash. Hopefully, it would look nothing like the fallout from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, which put an entire generation off nuclear energy. Check out this 2009 Alexis Madrigal joint on what went wrong, and how science has suffered because of it.

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