With each passing year, the reality of sharing the road with fleets of self-driving, autonomous cars comes more and more into focus. Virtually every major automaker has made (or plans to make) substantial investments into the development of self-driving cars. But when will we see them? When will they become so commonplace that people won’t think twice when they see one? Or better yet, won’t think twice about dialing up a self-driving Uber that arrives, on-demand, at their door step?
If you talk to the world’s leading automakers, it’s clear they have big plans. So they were asked questions like what do they have as their timelines for these cars? How much are they investing in this technology? What trends do they see that will impact the industry and, more importantly, consumers?
What is Self-Driving, Anyway?
Before we look at what they had to say, it’s helpful to make sure we’re referring to the same thing they are. SAE defines five different levels of self-driving, Levels 1 through 5.
Level 1 means the car can perform small steering or acceleration tasks, but the human controls everything else. Most people are already familiar with this kind.
Level 2 is where the car automatically takes safety actions but the driver is controlling the vehicle in most cases. Whenever you see commercials where the car stops on its own before it crashes into the back of an obstacle, that’s Level 2. So it’s already here in the marketplace (and on TV).
Level 3 is where the driver can activate automatic driving features under certain conditions, but controls the car otherwise. This level is the one automakers are least interested in because there’s potential issues about what happens to the car as control is being switched back and forth. They figure if they’re going to go through all the trouble, why not just jump ahead to Level 4?
Level 4 is where the car drives itself without the need for any human control. However, it can be programmed not to do this in certain situations, like in bad weather. This is what most people really think of when they’re envisioning self-driving cars.
Level 5 is whole-hog, full automation and self-driving, every time and everywhere.
As you’ll see, when carmakers talk about self-driving, they most often are referring to Level 3 and Level 4 cars. So let’s see what they have to say.
GM has set a public goal of being the first high-volume automaker (which excludes Tesla) to build fully autonomous vehicles in a mass-production plant setting. But they’re initially going to be focusing not on car buyers but on ride-sharing. GM bought a 9% share in Lyft (for half a billion dollars) and intends to capitalize on this by rolling out fleets of fully-autonomous electric vehicles by late-2018 or 2019. GM figures that if they can get people used to using self-driving cars as a service, they’ll be more likely to want to buy them, and GM will have its foot already in the door.
Ford Motor Company
Ford’s clearest statement came from its CEO Mark Field, who said Ford plans to have Level 4 vehicles in the market, with no gas pedal and no steering wheel, by 2021. These cars would be limited to pre-defined geographic areas, which makes them both easier to program and more suited for the same kind of ride-sharing uses that GM is breaking into.
Honda has long stated a goal of having cars that can be self-driving on the highway by 2020, to coincide with Japan’s Summer Olympics. Japan would make these cars a focus at the Games.
Toyota signaled its commitment to this kind of technology with a plan in 2015 to invest $1 billion over the next five years in its Research Institute to develop AI (artificial intelligence) technology. They hope to have self-driving cars ready to launch in 2020, again, to coincide with the Olympic Games. Though it’s not clear whether they will be Level 3 or Level 4. Toyota’s Research Institute CEO has tempered expectations, saying he believe “a number” of companies will have Level 4 cars running, but only within the next decade (which means by 2026 or 2027, not 2020) and only within specific areas like cities.
Like GM with Lyft, Volvo is also hoping that breaking into the ride-sharing industry will grease the skids for them cracking the consumer market. In 2017, Volvo committed $300 million to Uber to develop autonomous cars that will be tested by Uber in their services. Volvo wants full autopilot on the highway by 2021, a feature that will cost about $10,000 when added to high-end vehicles. And to quell the concerns of nervous drivers, Volvo was the first company to promise to accept full liability if something happens when one of its cars is in autonomous mode.
There are plenty of other automakers with similar plans, too. Hyundai (believe it or not, they’re the #3 automaker in the world now) wants self-driving for the highway by 2020 and self-driving everywhere else by 2030. The difference there is that they are focusing on making it lower-cost, something the average consumer can afford. Daimler is aiming for both Level 4 AND Level 5 (unusual) by 2020 or 2021. The CEO of Fiat thinks we’ll have self-driving cars in five years (though not necessarily Fiats). BMW wants to have fully-automated cars in production by 2021 (thought its not clear if they will be able to deliver full Level 4 or 5 by then. Level 3 is more realistic). Tesla CEO Elon Musk has predicted that by the end of 2018, someone will be able to drive from New York to Los Angeles without ever having to touch the steering wheel.
These are all lofty goals; indeed scary goals for some people who still can’t imagine a self-driving car in reality. Whether these car companies will be successful may depend as much on regulatory changes as anything else. They have to be legal to drive or operate, which is not yet the case in enough places.