For the last five-or-so years, talk of self-driving cars (or the promise of them) has been on the lips of car spokespeople at car shows and technology expos. The reality of a world of self-driving cars – automatic vehicles with an integrated onboard AI and fed with road and traffic data – has up until now been touted as something that is only around the corner. Yet within the last couple of years, self-driving cars have suddenly become a less imminent technology. It is no longer taken for granted that the new vehicle we just purchased could be the last one we ever drive. Indeed, it seems like human drivers might remain behind the wheel for a little longer yet. Carmakers, for example, have started dropping terms like “self-driving” and “mobility” from car shows.
It seems likely that a major reason for this is that another new technology – fully practical electric vehicles – is very certainly becoming a reality. Most carmakers, under pressure from ever-increasing environmental concerns, have committed to scrapping production of gas-powered vehicles by some time in the 2030s.
Stealing the Limelight
As it turns out, the decreased enthusiasm for new self-driving vehicles has been the result of other new car technology stealing the limelight. If a brand-new technology is going to be rolled out by carmakers (and remember that this involves massive investment and extensive development and research to make it practical), then it is only natural that they should see some return on their investment before that technology becomes itself obsolete.
This is not to say that electric cars will be made obsolete by self-driving cars, merely that with the resources going into electrification (and with that the urban infrastructure of charging points needed to accommodate it) being so significant, it’s only natural that there will be a period where it is electric cars – and not self-driving cars – that are the hottest thing on the market. As most car companies are not expected to go fully electric until the 2030s, it is natural to expect self-driving cars to become a widespread reality only after this. In other words, we will have to wait a bit.
Perfecting the Technology
It does well to remember that the same thing happened with electric vehicles. The technology to make effective and efficient electric cars has existed for some twenty years. But it was not perfected and the sales of gas-powered vehicles that were more efficient, could go faster, and could travel longer distances, was not something that car companies where eager to give up at that point. The same is true of the electric cars only just becoming widespread consumer items today.
And then there is technological development in other areas that has developed alongside the electric vehicle and made it a practical reality. New advancements in battery technology, such as the large lithium-ion cells which power electric cars, has been another area of heavy investment that has been necessary to bring electric vehicles to the market. Of course, this technology can also be used for self-driving cars, just as it has led to many other innovative technologies, such as super-efficient USB rechargeable batteries like those developed by Utah company Pale Blue Earth.
No Environmental Pressure
Another factor that may be delaying the appearance of self-driving cars is that, unlike electric vehicles, there is no environmental pressure to make their development an urgent concern. Electric vehicles already solve that issue, and so the incentive is simply not as strong.
Of course, it seems certain that self-driving cars will appear one day. The day just lies further in the future than many initially thought.