The self-driving cars are coming. Probably.
At the moment, no auto manufacturer has managed to produce anything that goes beyond what’s called “Level 2” autonomy — effectively just very advanced cruise control. Think Tesla’s Autopilot, which enables the car to handle mostly freeway driving.
Cadillac will soon debut SuperCruise, promising similar capabilities.
The path to marketable Level 4 or 5 autonomy still looks quite long; humans will be hands-on-the-wheel and eyes-on-the-road for at least a few more years. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of experimentation isn’t underway. Some of it is futuristic, but some of its has been, well … sort of odd.
Here’s a rundown of the long, strange trip, thus far:
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In August, a mysterious van was spotted driving around north Virginia -- but there was no one behind the wheel!
Except that there was -- but he was disguised as a car seat!
Weird! The truth was that Virginia Tech and Ford had teamed up to test how signals could be used to develop a common international language for autonomous vehicles to show their intentions to pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers.
So a researcher took the wheel of a Ford Transit Connect while wearing a seat suit. This attracted a lot of confused attention, but it also meant that Ford and Virginia Tech could collect data without using a self-driving car.
Apple was rumoured for over a year to be working on 'Project Titan' -- a presumably all-electric Apple Car that would drive itself and revolutionise transportation just as the Cupertino giant transformed music with the iPod and communications with the iPhone.
The project fell apart and was reorganized around software rather than an actual car. But evidence about what Apple was up to had trickled out. There was a van rigged up with some sort of self-driving or mapping tech, for example.
But the pièce de résistance was a grainy shot of the interior of an Apple training vehicle, outfitted with technology that looked like a summer computer camp project undertaken by high-schoolers.
Compared with Google's groovy little pod-like cars, this was both odd and alarming.
If there are to be self-driving cars in the future, there must logically be self-driving cars that deliver pizza.
Ford and Domino's provided us with a tantalising glimpse of this with an experimental program in Michigan.
It was the self-driving equivalent of a perp-walk: after flouting California DMV rules and putting self-driving Volvos on the streets of the Bay Area before they were properly permitted, Uber had to put the fleet on flatbeds and high-tail it to Arizona.
The whole affair was an ignominious follow-up to the successful rollout of Uber's self-driving tech in Pittsburgh -- and the incident presaged the ride-hailing startup's 2017 meltdown, which culminated in the departure of CEO Travis Kalanick.