Are self-driving vehicles really the future of mobility?

The technology is ready

It may seem like we have been talking about autonomous cars for ages now, so much so that we are growing impatient: are they really going to happen? And when? It turns out, they’re already happening. Since the start of 2017, Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google) has been testing its rebranded Google Cars in real-life conditions. In November, the company announced the upcoming launch of an autonomous minivan taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, with no safety drivers on board. “We want the experience of traveling with Waymo to be routine, so you want to use our driver for your everyday needs,” John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive officer, said at the Web Summit Conference. “Fully self-driving cars are here.” In California, no less than 42 companies are now allowed to test autonomous cars on open roads with no-one on board.

How will it develop?

While most efforts around self-driving cars have been led by Silicon Valley giants, Europe — and particularly Germany — is also in the race. There, “fledgling driverless projects (…) are (…) focused on utilitarian self-driving vehicles for mass transit that barely exceed walking pace,” notes The New York Times. “European transportation groups and city planners are (…) aiming to connect these unglamorous driverless vehicles to existing public transportation networks of subways and buses,” adds the newspaper, tallying more than 20 pilot or existing public transport programs in Europe involving autonomous vehicles.

Right now, the vehicles developed in the Silicon Valley are a luxury, to say the least — Tesla’s least expensive car starts at $69,500. But in the U.S. as well, it is very likely that few people will own their own Tesla or Waymo. Most manufacturers are striking deals with private hire platforms: Lyft, Uber’s main competitor in the U.S., has already partnered with Waymo and Ford. The future of driverless cars thus seems to be lying with on-demand services and public transportation.

Is it sustainable?

The manufacturers argue that autonomous cars will drastically reduce car accidents, 90% of which are caused by human error. Others claim benefits for the environment, too. General Motors has chosen to commit to battery-electric propulsion, with the motto: “Zero emissions. Zero crashes. Zero congestion.” The market is already splitting between this option (chosen by GM and Tesla) and hybrid-electric technology (chosen by Ford, Waymo and Uber), sparking debate about whether autonomous cars can really be sustainable. As The Verge sums up, “Electric power may be the future of the auto industry, but so is autonomy. Economies of scale, and not a commitment to environmentalism, will determine how many driverless cars are powered by electricity, and how many are not.”