Prediction #4 -- Self-driving cars won't happen this year no matter what Elon Musk says
We all know people who seem to not like anything. There are very successful people who sometimes seem to have reached that success entirely through saying "no." I’m not that kind of person. I’m an optimist. I’m even a bit of a risk-taker. But I can’t say that we’re going to see anything beyond more beta tests of self-driving cars in 2019. So my Prediction #4 is that self-driving cars won’t hit the retail market in any fashion this year. We simply aren’t ready and probably won’t be for years to come.
The problem with self-driving cars isn’t the technology. Heck, we’ve had the technology pretty much whipped for the past decade. Throw-in all the more recent data collected by Google and -- especially -- all those Teslas on Autopilot and nearly all the kinks have been worked out of having cars drive themselves. Still, it won’t be allowed to happen because people are going to die, mainly because of idiot drivers.
The problem isn’t with the self-driving cars, it’s with the cars that aren’t self-driving, cars that are driven by idiots like me.
My first exposure to self-driving cars was in 1995 and I’ve written about that here. The idea back then wasn’t dropping your kids off from school in your neighborhood, but cramming more cars onto the L.A. freeways. From on-ramp to off-ramp they’d be centrally-controlled, precisely one meter apart and going like bats-out-of-Hell, yet still getting superior gas mileage because of the drafting.
That system could have worked had cars on the freeway been limited to those under such direct control. Let them drive everywhere at 80 miles-per-hour even in rush hour and there would have been enough economic pressure to make it work.
But the idea today is to eliminate drivers from door-to-door, which is way harder. But we could do that, too, if it wasn’t for interacting with millions of drivers who are still controlling their vehicles the old fashion way, which is often in a barely competent fashion. So we give up the super-high-speed lane concept and get a new form of road rage, instead.
Cars always used to last for about 10 years, but over the last couple decades that has been extended through two expedients: 1) high strength galvanized steel bodies that don’t rust the way your Dad’s Oldsmobile used to, and; 2) car prices that are substantially higher even adjusted for inflation. We keep our cars longer because they don’t rust and we can’t afford to replace them so often.
The result is that while we could expect a complete turnover in car technology every decade, now it takes closer to two decades. I drive a 2006 GMC Yukon XL Denali with 164,000 miles on it. My next car, if I ever get one, will be a 2006 Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI (I’m on the lookout if you know of a good one). So I’m no help at all toward reaching the self-driving singularity.
It will eventually happen. Once half the fleet has been replaced with cars that could be self-drivers if we allowed them to be, then there will be a huge financial incentive to get the other half off the street. This will be especially the case if climate change is still accelerating.
I’m guessing that most cars from 2020-on could be self-driving with only a software upgrade, which is why Elon Musk is predicting Tesla will have full autonomy by the end of 2019. But notice that Elon isn’t predicting Tesla will be allowed to have its cars drive themselves everywhere.
We’ll first see it on the highways, where interaction between car species should be easier to handle. But a few instances of bad luck could easily scotch that, in which case it will be 2030 when we suddenly seem to have self-driving cars overnight, based purely on fleet capability.
So why is the world talking so much about self-driving cars and full autonomy? Some of it is Tesla hype, some of it is marketing as the car companies try to get us to buy cars that will eventually be self-driving, but probably not until their second owners. And the other reason why we’re talking so much about self-driving cars is because Uber is planning to go public later this year.
Uber says it spent $750 million last year on self-driving research. I have no idea if that is actually true. Maybe the money was spent on self-driving, maybe it was spent on something else. Maybe they bought a lot of really great lunches for self-driving car engineers. They spent a lot, I know, because Uber is about to take another $1 billion from SoftBank and others just to continue to work on their self-driving technology that the company is hinting is worth $5-10 billion all by itself.
What’s it worth if Uber can’t actually use the tech until 2030?
I don’t think Uber management actually cares. That’s years from now and they have an IPO to worry about -- an IPO that will go smoother if the driving public thinks autonomous cars are something that we’ll be seeing soon. Uber has a labor problem. If it can spin a story that surly and expensive human drivers are soon to be replaced with electrons, that will be very reassuring to Wall Street. But as I explained, it also isn’t true.
The world isn’t yet ready -- something Uber and Tesla and all the others will suddenly admit in about a year (post-IPO).
This is not to say that there has been no progress on self-driving vehicles of many types. I had a discussion on this recently with reader Chris X Edwards (we Xs stick together) who works for Buffalo Automation, a company in Buffalo, NY working on self-driving ships. Now this makes a lot of sense to me given less maritime traffic and wide sea lanes. I especially like the idea of self-docking boats.
"I personally believe strongly in solving all of the easier problems than the idiot driver problem," says Chris. "There is tremendous potential in areas like tractors (I can assure you that Case New Holland is hiring people like me) and mine hauling (I love Komatsu, the true autonomous vehicle pioneers). Note how these types of businesses avoid the idiot driver problem completely.
"Being in Buffalo, we’re also interested in improving the (sometimes literal) blind spot the rest of the autonomous industry has with snow and winter (there are exceptions ). Having now personally seen a lot of idiot drivers crash their cars in the snow, I can assure you that 99.9 percent of snow related accidents are the result of something autonomous vehicles are immune to -- driving too fast. A lot of potential there if we can just get over that idiot driver hurdle."
Something I forgot to mention in my discussion with Chris was a story I wrote 25 or so years ago for Forbes about Caterpillar’s self-driving harvester. This was about the same time I was learning about California’s research in computer-controlled freeways. Caterpillar, a big agricultural equipment manufacturer, was worried about the loss of farm workers and looking for a way to make equipment that could drive itself. So they hired an engineer working on neural nets and cobbled together a system built on a Macintosh II that actually worked. It was self-training and could figure out the field -- any field of any size or shape -- and determine how to most efficiently harvest the crop, typically corn or wheat.
The only reason Caterpillar didn’t bring self-driving to market in the mid-1990s was the problem of legal liability, which is something the autonomous car folks are going to be wrestling with for years to come. Their lawyers wouldn’t let Caterpillar sell the harvester. So they had to figure something else to do with that self-learning, yield-optimizing technology. Caterpillar brilliantly had their neural net guy convert that Mac II system from running a harvester to instead optimizing the return on Caterpillar’s pension fund, which autonomously drove by itself to record returns over the next few years.