If you followed CES 2018 in Las Vegas earlier this month or the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, you’re probably already hyped to head to your local dealership and put a down payment on a self-driving car.
After all, both shows had plenty of news surrounding autonomous vehicles. And with automakers like Tesla offering limited self-driving capabilities in their autos, it feels like a car that can drive you across town without having you touch the wheel is right around the corner.
And in a sense, that’s true. But if you’re hoping to visit a dealership and pick up a robo-car of your own that can crisscross the country while you nap, watch movies or have a few beers, you’ll have to wait a lot longer.
The car as computer
The first thing you need to realize when talking about self-driving cars is that they’re not all built the same. That’s because the auto industry categorizes the vehicles by six levels of autonomy established by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Levels 0 to 2 refer to cars that are completely human controlled or include one or more driver-assistance systems, but still must be controlled by a human driver.
Level 3 is where “automated” systems come into play and allows the car to drive itself with the expectation that a human will take over when necessary. Level 4 sees the self-driving system completely control a vehicle without human interference, but only within a set area or outside of weather events such as heavy rain or snow.
The final stage of automation, which is what your average person likely thinks of when they hear the term “self-driving cars,” is Level 5, when a vehicle drives on its own regardless of its location, the time of day or the kind of weather it’s traveling in.
So, when an automaker tells the world that it will have self-driving cars by 2020, it likely means Level 3 or Level 4 cars will be available as commercial vehicles, in specific cities or regions without consumer sales by that time.
That might not be what you have in mind when you hear a car company executive talking about getting self-driving cars on the road in the next decade, but it’s also not an exaggeration on the company’s part. What’s more of a problem is how such vehicles are described to the public. But that’s neither here, nor there.
Where are we now?
OK, so there are a number of definitions for self-driving cars. So where is the industry now? That depends on which automaker you talk to. Tesla (TSLA), for example, uses what Gartner’s Mike Ramsey refers to as Level 2 Plus.
Sure, a Tesla Model S with Autopilot activated can drive on certain roads, accelerating and decelerating and moving the steering wheel on its own, but the vehicle needs you to be able to monitor the driving environment by ensuring you keep your hands on the wheel, and the vehicle can’t perform certain maneuvers like making turns, or U-turns. It’s basically a high-end version of cruise control.
A number of automakers, including Ford (F), have recently announced that they are working with ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, as well as delivery companies to bring autonomous vehicles into the suburbs and study how they can be used in cities. Ford even announced that it’s working with an as-yet-unnamed city to test out self-driving vehicles in urban areas.
Then there are the vehicles from companies like Alphabet’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Waymo that are operating their vehicles on public roads, and others that are using the massive Mcity testing ground to better understand how autonomous technologies work in general.
Cities are a huge problem for self-driving cars. Imagine how difficult it is to drive on the lawless, minefields that make up Manhattan’s streets. Now imagine how hard it is to program software to be able to recognize vehicles swerving between lanes, cyclists doing god knows what, pedestrians darting through intersections against traffic signals and errant super rats dragging whole pizzas into the street. It’s pretty difficult, is what I’m saying.
What’s more, self-driving demonstrations like those at CES are performed by tech companies and automakers meticulously mapping the streets on which they’re driven to ensure vehicles know every inch of roadway. There’s a reason cars like that take the same route for everyone who tests them out, after all.
When will we get there?
All of that makes the idea that self-driving cars will hit the road by 2020 seem a bit far-fetched. But the truth is, it’s likely right on the money. Just don’t expect the kind of autonomous cars you’re thinking of.
Rather than being able to go out and buy your own version of KITT from “Knight Rider,” you’ll likely experience Level 4 self-driving cars in limited areas for things like ride-sharing services or deliveries for things like food. The cars will stay in the kind of intricately-mapped areas seen at events like CES, though on a larger scale. You can also expect them to use geofencing technology, so that they can’t leave predetermined sections of town.
Level 5, or fully-autonomous, self-driving cars will take longer to hit the road. Ford’s Alan Hall says automakers do not have a timeline for making Level 5 vehicles available at this time. And, as Gartner’s Ramsey points out, the reason for that is the Herculean effort it will take to ensure that cars can safely drive themselves anywhere on Earth without any interaction with their passengers.
“The level of complexity involved is so high, and the stakes being human lives, are so important, that no one is going to be reckless with the introduction of the technology,” Ramsey said.
Then there’s the prohibitively high price self-driving cars will command when they become available to general consumers. On top of that, Americans hold onto their existing vehicles for more than 10 years, meaning that once we finally get affordable self-driving cars on the road, it’ll take even more time for the majority of drivers to make the transition from manually-controlled vehicles to autonomous cars.
All of that is to say, while it may sound like a self-driving future is right around the corner, the reality is it’ll still be quite some time before a car can drive itself into your garage.
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Email Daniel Howley at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.