The driverless car has metamorphosed from a superfluous autonomous machine to the vehicle of choice for tech giants hoping to boast their technical prowess and visionary thinking.
The name of the Silicon Valley game has always been innovation, and the chance to merge quadruped hardware with self-regulating software has offered companies a new way to reinvent themselves and their visions. Driverless cars represent a new means by which to edge each other out in a race to the top of a Fritz Lang-style global metropolis, whose technocratic ruler would be the company capable of aligning their driverless transportation dreams with those of the public.
Racing quite literally out of the blocks in this race to showcase its driverless vehicles has been Uber. Having already expanded its operations as a taxi service from the streets of San Francisco to more than 500 cities worldwide, Uber went and pushed out its sample line of driverless cars in Pittsburgh in September.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has previously stated that the need for the company to delve into driverless cars is “basically existential” – a comment which explains why Uber seems to be so keen to come out with a working model first. It’s a vision that seeks to cut the cost of ride-hailing by slashing the cost of human drivers. He hopes to offer a safer alternative for passengers who must place an unwarranted trust in a driver they’ve never met to shuttle them safely to their destinations.
Uber’s driverless cars are designed with Volvo, and currently require technicians at hand for potential intervention, but it aims to phase these out. It has had the distinct advantage of analysing data from all the road miles made by Uber drivers so far.
If the company has its way, car ownership could be a thing of the past. Speaking to Reuters, an Uber spokesperson said: “Our goal is to replace private car ownership.”
There are a number of issues with Uber’s approach. The fleet of cars displayed in Pittsburgh was in fact not a fleet: there was a grand total of four for viewing, making it impossible to visualise how a fully-fledged system would work.
A more pressing issue is Uber’s timeframe. In contrast to other companies in the market, Uber is aiming for mass-market spread within a few years – far too soon, according to experts who think that safety measures will be compromised, and adherence to future regulations avoided, as a result. Uber currently lacks an ethics committee, creating a grey area in determining what happens if one of these cars is involved in an accident.
Perhaps demonstrating even greater ambition is Google. Taking on the challenge of autonomy and safety on busy city streets, the firm’s unrivalled mapping data seems to leave it well-equipped.
First revealed in 2010, Google’s self-driving car project is expected to come into service sometime in the 2020s. Accidents and traffic could be a thing of the past, the firm says.
Chris Urmson, who headed the project until recently, believes that these cars will work based on a positive feedback system – one which allows them to improve the more they are put into practice. As one car learns, every car will learn. Shared data means the rate of improvement for Google’s driverless cars will be exponential.
Showing no sign of a slow-up in its ambitions, Apple, a company which has found a way into the psyche of its acolytes, is thought to be getting involved in the cars of the future too. Links have been made between Apple and McLaren, with a £1.2bn acquisition rumoured. It would come as no surprise if Apple did this; its greatest successes came in convincing consumers that they needed their products, and a possible iCar could do the same.
A tamer approach to driverless cars is coming from the companies who identify themselves as automotive ones instead of tech ones. Tesla has led the pack with its driver-assist technology. Its Model S is “designed to get better over time”, using a “unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic”.
Following the first death of a person in an autopilot mode Tesla Model S car last May, the media and consumers were quick to issue warnings over the safety of the Tesla autopilot mode. Though Tesla CEO Elon Musk was quick to offer his condolences to the family of Joshua Brown, the driver who crashed in the vehicle in Florida, he was firm in his insistence that Tesla was not to blame. Musk said that this was the first documented death of a person in a Tesla on autopilot mode after an accumulative total of 130m miles driven by its customers – whereas “among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94m miles”.
When put into perspective, it’s clear that paranoid hysteria surrounds the roll out of driverless vehicles. Safety has always been one of the key arguments for their use; by removing the risk of human error, Musk and the lik suggest, we are able to create a safer road environment.
Earlier this year, Ford launched Ford Smart Mobility – its start-up-styled initiative designed to encourage ride sharing. By creating a small subset team to work on the technology, Ford is safeguarding itself from unforeseeable failures with driverless cars, by maintaining its production of normal ones. Its cars have had elements of automation introduced incrementally – for example, implanted sensors that enable these cars to park themselves. Ford hopes to have some sort of ride-sharing service in action by 2021.
BMW, Volvo and Audi are taking the cautious road too. BMW is making use of GPS to chart safe routes for its cars. In comparison to Google’s mapping, BMW’s system seems much more primitive, suggesting that the pace of development is dictated by accessibility to technology beyond vehicles. Volvo focuses on safety too, and hopes that its cars will be involved in no accidents by 2020 due to automation.
As we enter a market for cars in which the top tech companies will be meeting at a crossroads, competing visions and levels of ambition will create a new relationship of trust between consumers and driverless car producers. There is no doubt that driverless cars are here to stay: our roads will one day teem with passengers who get to relax on the roads. Taking your hands off the wheel will eventually become the norm – but don’t expect to be free-wheeling worldwide for a while yet.
Hasan Chowdhury is the Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman, where this article was first published.