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But beyond the need for near-perfection, Google—and more specifically, it's newly created company, Waymo—is facing a handful of obstacles preventing it from getting these cars in the hands of consumers.
For starters, it's important to know that the self-driving car dream for Waymo isn't a singular vision. There are actually two major plans in the works; one is to get autonomous cars in the hands of consumers, like traditional cars, but the other is to provide a taxi-like service with automated drivers. Both of these visions are held back by the same group of obstacles, but one may be able to manifest faster than the other.
Hypothetically, Waymo cars are ready to hit the streets, so what's holding them back?
Part of the problem is that Google is a tech company. It doesn't have the infrastructure or expertise necessary to build and sell a fleet of vehicles to consumers; that's why it's partnering with major auto manufacturers like Honda instead of producing its own vehicles. Unfortunately, these potential partnerships are still in their infancy, and nothing is set in stone, so it might take months or years before we start to see this stage completed.
One of the biggest hurdles to autonomous cars, since the beginning, has been the laws and regulations surrounding their development and use. So far, only a handful of states even allow self-driving cars to be tested on their roads, and even those regulations are relatively strict, mandating things like the potential for human driver takeover, which compromises Google's original view of complete autonomy. Still, this is completely uncharted territory, and these laws are being treated as malleable. Before it's ready to push for public consumption, Waymo will have its work cut out for it to convince lawmakers that its vision for vehicular autonomy is valid.
Finally, it isn't going to be enough for most consumers to take Google's word for the safety of its vehicles. The majority of Americans don't trust the safety of autonomous cars—at least not yet—which means Google will need to provide some pretty compelling truth before the public is ready to accept it. Since customers will have to start trusting these vehicles before Google can provide that proof, this leads to a complex chicken-or-the-egg scenario that's hard to wriggle out of.
One More Wrinkle
These obstacles will be keeping Waymo busy for a while, but there's one more wrinkle that the company will have to face. This specific challenge won't interfere with how and when Waymo cars begin to hit the streets, but will instead challenge the viability and profitability of the company. Waymo is already facing stiff, heavy competition from the likes of Uber, which is testing its own autonomous car service, and nuTonomy, a similar company already operating in Singapore. While Waymo tries to iron out the logistics wrinkles for its self-driving cars, these companies are building infrastructure, which puts them ahead of the game and leaves Google with a tough game of catch-up.
Overall, the obstacles facing Waymo are tough, but conquerable. It may be several months to a few years before Waymo cars become available for public use, but the company is making progress, and its software is already a safer driver than most humans. With Uber and nuTonomy in the mix, the collective push for vehicle autonomy will only become stronger, helping to overcome the regulatory and public trust issues currently facing the industry. It's only a matter of time—and not much time—before self-driving cars are out in fleets.