Will this year finally be the year that the chatter about self-driving cars transforms into big numbers of autonomous wheels hitting real roads?
Well, in some way or another, it’s starting to look like it.
In a recent visit to the wild west testing lab city of Las Vegas, I was able to try out a few different types of autonomous vehicles, some that are already cut loose on public roads and some that claim to be just about ready to go.
If you close your eyes and imagine a self-driving car, what you’ll probably picture is something like the Autonom Cab by Navya. I hailed it for a demo trip in Downtown Las Vegas, and though the steering wheel-less, double bench seat wagon doesn’t operate with the same haste as the New York cabs I’m used to, it gives an impressive ride. For a robot.
It obeyed all the red lights and stops signs it came across during its several-block test course. And it even steered clear of an erratic human driver or two. But, again, that was all at a sliver of the speed that other normal cars around it were driving.
Navya says its driverless cab will be poised for rolling out of tests and into open city use sometime in 2018, but of course regulations in the U.S. will not likely be ready to make that happen here for the French autonomous auto maker.
"Cities evolve at a much slower rate than corporations," William Riggs, a University of San Francisco assistant professor and city planning expert, told me.
"Ultimately, we're probably talking, before we see fully autonomous either private or shared-use vehicles, within that five- to 10-year horizon."
To that point, during my Autonom Cab demo, local laws required that a driver be present for safety. In this case, my "driver" was holding onto a video game controller that he would use to override the car in the event of an emergency.
Similar regulatory restraints were also placed on the self-driving Lyft ride-share that took me up and down the Las Vegas Strip. Though it was outfitted with autonomous tech from partnering company Aptiv, and seemed perfectly capable of weaving around normal Las Vegas traffic – ie fussy traffic – masterfully, a driver was still required to sit behind the wheel.
And though I think they provide an even more natural than Navya’s vehicle, Lyft and Aptiv are saying that they don’t expect a real rollout of their self-driving cars for a couple of years yet. The whole business model of a driverless ride-share will need to wait for the driverless part to be legal, of course.
Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be real street tests or pilots by Lyft, Navya and others happening this year – and probably more than ever before. So you will be seeing those
Google’s Waymo, for example, is even a little further along, having been granted permission in Phoenix late last year to begin trialing its autonomous minivans without a safety driver present for its select group of “early riders.”
"These small-scale deployments to interact with real people are essential," Riggs said. "Fifty or 60 companies now have licenses to operate in California, for example. And number is going to continue to grow.
But, even beyond all that wonky stuff, there is one more place you will you be seeing more self-driving cars on real roads in 2018: highways.
Outside of Vegas, I test drove a 2018 all-electric Nissan Leaf, which actually test drove itself part of the time thanks to Nissan’s ProPILOT driver assist technology. It’s like cruise control that also steers, brakes and accelerates on its own.
Of course, like similar driver-assist cars on the streets today from Tesla and BMW, the new Leaf (and the similarly equipped 2018 Nissan Rogue) still need to be driven manually on stop-and-go city roads and require hands be on the steering wheel during semi-autonomous highway driving.
Even though, as said, this level of autonomous vehicle tech isn’t new for 2018, now that it’s coming on the Leaf, the best-selling electric car of all time, as well as plenty of other more accessible car models soon, you can expect to see an influx of self-driving on real interstates and turnpikes this year.
So, in 2018, how for real are autonomous cars going to be? Definitely as real as they’ve ever been up to this point!
But really, rubber is meeting the road for self-driving cars -- in what could be considered reasonably sized, controlled rollouts. This won't be the year that streets gets filled with autonomous cars, but there will some cruising in.