It looks like we may start seeing fully or nearly fully autonomous cars on the road sooner than anyone thought.
Ford, for example, announced last month that it wants to put a fleet of fully self-driving vehicles on the road by 2021. Uber did it one better by rolling out semi-self-driving Volvo SUVs in Pittsburgh. And General Motors has been talking about self-driving cars in connection with its Lyft investment and partnership for a year.
The name of the game is to bring autonomous driving to urbanites who don’t own cars — and don’t want to. That’s the unifying theme of much of the accelerated enthusiasm for self-driving technologies.
There is a small problem with this idea, however: Car-less city dwellers are already quite well served by good old-fashioned, human-driven taxis. And if walking outside and sticking your hand in the air to hail a cab doesn’t work for you, there are the aforementioned Uber and Lyft, along with other ride-hailing startups. Legacy car services also remain the picture. Heck, you can still rent stretch limos with chauffeurs if you want to roll like a rock star.
The point is, urbanites have been relieved from the responsibility for driving since, well … since before there were cars to drive. In London over a century ago, Sherlock Holmes could leap into a waiting carriage, driven not by him and powered by a horse.
Self-driving tech is actually more exciting for the customers who are already using rudimentary versions of it: people who own and drive their cars every day. Driving a car can be a lot of fun, but commuting in and around car-centric major metropolises, such as Los Angeles, is a chore.
Advanced autonomy would be a true game-changer for these folks, liberating them from hours of stop-and-go drudgery.
Cities are hard
The engineering demands for full-autonomy on highways and major roads are also less onerous. Current self-driving technologies, such as Tesla’s Autopilot, can handle traffic jams on freeways pretty capably, and cruising at speed is also relatively straightforward.
Negotiating the five boroughs of New York City, on the other hand, is exceedingly tricky.
And just to use New Yorkers as Example A for a moment: They don’t lack for transportation options — you can get from point to point in the Big Apple by car, train, bus, boat, motorcycle, helicopter, and of course on foot. And that doesn’t even exhaust all your choices (Skateboard? Scooter?).
Suburbanites, by contrast, are stuck mainly with cars. Pretty much everybody in suburbia has at least one.
This is a big market for self-driving tech. It has the added benefit of being more profitable than the city market, where vehicles tend to be smaller, less luxurious, and where so-called “fleet” sales — all those Toyota sedans doing duty as NYC taxis — rule the day.
And yet, most of what we hear about autonomous driving, on the major-disruption front, is concentrated on the urban discussion.
It’s not hard to understand why. Major automakers don’t want to miss out on a brave new way to do fleet sales, and they don’t want to be edged out by all the new-mobility entrants. But they also don’t want to stop selling millions of vehicles annually to the soccer mums and dads of the world.
And right now, the car makers are trying to figure out if they can push out full autonomy in a big way to their core customers, without having those customers choke on the inevitable high initial costs that early self-driving tech will impose.
Until the car companies sort this out, they will be experimentally serving their worst markets, while potentially neglecting their best.
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