There has been a lot of talk, but we still don't know that much about these proposed vehicles, which are at least three years off. That's half a development cycle in this industry. We generally only start to get an idea of what a company will build about two years before it goes on sale. So instead of concrete information about autonomous cars, 2016 has brought us a lot of promises, many in the form of concept cars. They have popped up from just about every automaker accompanied by the CEO's pledge to deliver a Level 4 autonomous, all-electric model (usually a crossover) in a few years. It's very easy to say that a static design study sitting on a stage will be able to drive itself while projecting a movie on the windshield, but it's another thing entirely to make good on that promise. With a few exceptions, 2016 has been stuck in the promising stage.
It's a strange thing, really; automakers are famous for responding with "we don't discuss future product" whenever we ask about models or variants known to be in the pipeline, yet when it comes to self-driving electric wondermobiles, companies have been falling all over themselves to let us know that theirs is coming soon, it'll be oh so great, and, hey, that makes them a mobility company now, not just an automaker. A lot of this is posturing and marketing, showing the public, shareholders, and the rest of the industry that "we're making one, too, we swear!" It has set off a domino effect – once a few companies make the guarantee, the rest feel forced to throw out a grandiose yet vague plan for an unknown future. And indeed there are usually scant details to go along with such announcements – an imprecise mileage estimate here, or a far-off, percentage-based goal there. Instead of useful discussion of future product, we get demonstrations of test mules, announcements of big R&D budgets and new test centers they'll fund, those futuristic concept cars, and, yeah, more promises.
The truth is we just don't know what the autonomous landscape will look like, and a lot of these attempts to appear to be getting out in front of things seem to be motivated by fear.
It's not enough to build cars anymore, since the common thinking is that vehicle sales will take a dive when we ride-share instead of owning individual cars. It's a surprisingly unromantic idea that runs counter to the overly romanticized dream of ownership, and it's a tough one to get consumers excited about. As a sort of public safeguard, car companies are taking a page out of the tech industry playbook by buying up parking services and start-ups, cutting deals with tech companies, and making claims about how they'll touch every element of your digital life to make your existence that much better.
That same tech industry is quickly becoming the auto industry, or at least trying to. It starts with some of the biggies, which you might otherwise think of as phone companies. Google is still working on autonomous cars but has abandoned plans to build them itself, spelling an end to those cute koala cars. It spun off its car skunkworks, now focused on software and using vehicles from strategic partners like FCA to test its tech, into a new company called Waymo under the growing Alphabet umbrella. And then there's the secretive Apple Car that was, wasn't, was again, then definitely wasn't. Like Google, Apple reportedly has plans to continue pursuing the software side of autonomy, although it sounds like the ambitious Project Titan is on indefinite hold. BlackBerry's QNX subsidiary, which currently specializes in infotainment and navigation, is also pursuing the autonomous dream in partnership with Ford. (QNX has so much expertise in the space that Apple has poached talent from its Ontario, Canada, HQ and set up shop right down the street to work on car-related things.)
There are of course the app-based services, chief among them Uber and Lyft, that are poised to make the most of driverless cars. Lyft and GM are working together (the latter apparently wanted to buy the former outright) to make and deploy on-demand self-driving cars. Uber is using Volvos and Ford Fusions in public test fleets with drivers behind the wheel should something happen. Uber also purchased Otto, an autonomous trucking startup, which has already demonstrated its ability to autonomously move beer (perhaps allowing the human minder to imbibe on the way?), and the pair is working on UberFreight for on-demand transportation of goods. People are already worried about the jobs these advances will make redundant.
The regulations are slowly catching up. Which means at this rate they still won't get out ahead of the technology that already exists. Like most tech-related legislation, it's going to be a chicken-and-egg situation where it won't be clear whether the technology or the rules governing it must come first. There's at least some agreement on definitions for autonomy levels 0 through 5 put forth by the SAE, but it's not clear how those cars will mingle with other traffic or where they'll be allowed to operate and when. Until the tech is ready for prime time, those will all be tough questions to answer, and then we'll be relying on governments to catch up as usual.
And yes, there has been progress, and most of it positive. Little of it comes, however, from actual automakers. Tesla's Autopilot, with its controversial name, continues to evolve through updated hardware and constant software revisions – the latest hardware is said to be Level 5-capable, but only once the laws and over-the-air updates catch up. Uber got its start quietly in Pittsburgh before ruffling feathers in San Francisco autonomous tests before the kibosh was put on its efforts. Hyundai gave us a ride around the block in an autonomous Ioniq. Ford has a less-gangly-looking version of its autonomous Fusion. Many test centers were opened and more got funding.
So 2016 has been a year of a lot of talk and a little noticeable action when it comes to the driver-free future envisioned for the industry. Progress is being made, but it just isn't as sexy as those static concept cars. It's tough to make a car with a roof rack full of sensors exciting, and we get that. This year we got the bold claims, but maybe 2017 will bring the goods. Auto show season kicks off next week with CES followed by Detroit and we'll be counting the concepts and the claims.