It’s 2018, and you may be asking yourself, “Where are all the driverless cars?” Well, they’re already here, driving at extremely low speeds in tightly geofenced areas in over a dozen cities, in what is probably the most low-key, unassuming start to a global paradigm shift that we’ve ever seen.
We can all be forgiven for assuming that completely unencumbered driverless cars were right around the corner. After all, the purveyors of such technology lead us to believe as much, promising coast-to-coast demonstrations and selling us on the prospect of sleeping while driving. But the reality is much different: low-speed autonomous pods are currently operating all over the country, racking up an impressive number of trips while barely drawing any attention for it. As billion-dollar companies like Google, Uber, Ford, and GM scramble to perfect their high-profile robot taxi projects before they launch, smaller, more nimble startups are making progress in lower-stakes pilots that are operating right under our noses.
On Monday, May Mobility celebrated its 10,000th trip in Detroit, where its fleet of autonomous, six-seater shuttles offer rides to Quicken Loans employees for free along a one-mile loop. It only took the Ann Arbor-based startup 75 days to hit that mark, a sign that slow and steady can sometimes win the self-driving race. As required by Michigan law, each shuttle currently has a human fleet attendant in the vehicle. And in a city defined by automobiles, the friendly green-and-white shuttles are being praised for offering a reliable alternative to car ownership.
But why restrict yourself to just human cargo? Every week brings an announcement of a new self-driving delivery service. Last week, San Francisco-based startup Udelv announced it had signed a deal to supply Oklahoma City’s largest grocery chain with self-driving delivery vehicles. Previously, the company’s bright orange vehicles were delivering groceries for the high-end Draeger’s Market chain in the Bay Area city of San Mateo. Now, they’ll be used to deliver a wider selection of food for the more mass-market customers of Uptown Grocery, Buy For Less, and Smart Saver stores.
But recently, much of that hype has collided with the reality that self-driving cars will take much longer to hit the road than previously thought. Public support for the technology has waned in the wake of a fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle last March. A bill that would allow for the sale and deployment of hundreds of thousands of self-driving vehicles is stalled in the US Senate, and it’s not expected to pass anytime soon. Many critics now say that self-driving cars are stuck in the “trough of disillusionment,” a reference to the “Hype Cycle” popularized by research firm Gartner.
Against this challenging backdrop, autonomous vehicle developers are moving aggressively to launch commercial ride-hailing services, in which customers would pay to take trips in robot taxis. Waymo has said it would kick off its first revenue-making service in Phoenix before the end of the year. GM is eyeing 2019 for its commercial operation, most likely in San Francisco. Ford is laying the groundwork for autonomous ride-hailing and delivery in Miami.
So while we wait for the driverless revolution to fully manifest, these small, painfully slow shuttle pods are a positive sign of what’s to come. For decades, driving has been synonymous with high speeds on the open road, and the tens of thousands of traffic deaths that occur each year were dismissed as the byproduct of unfettered vehicular freedom.
If we’re serious about eliminating those deaths, then we need to psychologically prepare ourselves for urban transportation that’s slower, safer, more boring, and a lot more like public transportation. As cities increasingly look to these services to attract employers, hopefully they will incentivize transit agencies to make real improvements to our bus and rail systems. Because self-driving technology that doesn’t work in concert with public transportation isn’t a revolution worth fighting for.