If the age of self-driving cars is upon us, what’s keeping them off the roads?
As Google and Uber trial prototypes, the future of fully driverless cars and safer roads should come sooner than anyone thought – but they’re in no mood to rush
By Alex Hern
Aug 22 2016
Sitting in the passenger seat of Google’s self driving car is a less bizarre experience than sitting in the driving seat, but it’s still unsettling. In the streets of Mountain View, outside the headquarters of X (once Google X, in the post-Alphabet age it’s moved out of mum and dad’s house and dropped the prefix), I got the chance to do just that.
It’s partly unsettling because it’s hard not to feel a flicker of anxiety when you look over and notice that the person driving the car hasn’t got their hands on the wheel, even as you head towards a red light on a corner with a huge truck bearing down on you.
It’s partly because the software that drives the car isn’t exactly ready for production yet, so every now and again something weird happens – a jerky overtake, a slight hesitation to squeeze through into an adjacent lane, or, as happened once, the car declaring for no obvious reason that “a slight hiccup” had occurred and that it was going to pull over.
And it’s partly because the future has come a lot sooner than anyone really thought. Even if Google takes far longer to start selling cars than it thinks it will (and senior figures in X tell me that they’re confident something will hit the market before 2020), this technology is going to hit the real world somewhere soon, and it’s going to change everything.
Uber agrees. The taxi company on Thursday announced the latest phase of its own self-driving tests, putting its prototype cars on the roads of Pittsburgh for real riders to hail them for the first time. They aren’t quite self-driving – they still have a human driver for backup – but they’re the next step for the company’s drive to replace its “driver-partners” (Uber is notoriously reluctant to grant Uber drivers full employment rights) with a fully automated fleet.
Until a month ago, though, you could be forgiven for thinking the self-driving revolution had already hit. Tesla Motors, the upstart electric car company headed by the charismatic serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, launched its heavily promoted “autopilot” feature to owners of its Model S cars in October 2015.
The feature was labelled a “public beta”, and users were warned to always keep their hands on the steering wheel; but those messages were counteracted by bluster from Musk, who declared in March that year that “We’re now almost able to travel all the way from San Francisco to Seattle without the driver touching any controls at all”. And, of course, the name Autopilot itself does little to suggest to the average user that the car does not, in fact, drive itself.
Those mixed messages led to tragedy in May, when a Tesla driver, Joshua Brown, died in a crash which happened while Autopilot was in charge of the car. As Tesla put it, the crash happened when “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed” a tractor trailer crossing the highway in front of the car; the following day, it emerged that Brown may have been watching a movie as his car drove itself.