5 Common Myths about Car Autonomy - and why its impacts are coming sooner than expected

Over the last year autonomous cars have started to enter the popular zeitgeist just as they have started to roll down our roads.  It now seems inevitable that in the not-so-distant future, our roads will be dominated by self-driving vehicles just as capable as they have been in our favorite scifi movies like “Minority Report”.  And because of this, it’s natural that every car manufacturer, car service operator, and many car-related technology developers have strong opinions on when autonomous cars will really matter, how it will affect their business, and how these autonomous cars will transform the roadscape in general.

However, when you read what people predict, there is a wide variety of contradictory opinions, which often stem from confusion about the relationship between autonomous technology, driver-free vehicle designs, and driving regulations.

So here are some misconceptions that people seem to have about how autonomous driving will play out.

Myth 1: Autonomy is an all or nothing proposition.  

Often when people talk about self-driving cars, they envision a clear black or white distinction between cars that drive themselves, and those that don’t. In reality autonomy is an aggregate of features and behaviors that will continue to advance and have a major economic impact far before regulation catches up.  

From a technical standpoint, there is no clear delineation between semi-autonomous and autonomous. Cars will be “autonomous” in certain scenarios (meaning they won’t need any help from a driver), and semi-autonomous (where the need a driver backup) in others. Google cars are already “autonomous” at certain speeds in certain areas. Consumer focused autonomous features started with simple driver assistance such as radar assisted braking in 2006. These have been highly refined in current Tesla vehicles, to the point where well over 90% of highway miles can now be driven by the car needing no driver interaction with either the pedals or steering. This percentage of autonomous scenarios will continue to increase on the highway and rapidly start to unfold on city streets in 2017.  

The immediate result of this technology is a huge reduction in driver fatigue, road rage, and a general increase in safety in cases where the driver maintains attention on the road. By 2018 the leading semi-autonomous cars (i.e. Teslas) will be able to technically drive themselves in almost all situations. Despite the regulatory requirement to have a licensed driver behind the wheel, this technology will change the nature of driving, as drivers essentially become passengers - though the laws will not afford them the same freedoms as true passengers. Then, over the next few years - once technical autonomy has been achieved by the leading companies - states and countries will start to change regulations around licensed drivers in vehicles - freeing them up to start texting, sleeping, and eventually to not even need to be the backup “driver”. 

Generally while a true “self-driving” (no driver needed) car is a huge inflection point for some scenarios, the benefits of autonomous technology will arrive at different times in different places and different scenarios and will quickly start to change the nature of driving this year.

Myth 2: Regulatory hurdles will impede the technology development and adoption. 

Because regulatory approval is not required for advanced “driver assistance” features, it is possible to deploy autonomous technology in cars as long as it is done in a manner that allows the driver to take over control of the car at anytime in a similar manner to current cruise control systems.  Long before the regulations catch up with the technology, cars will be effectively driving themselves in an increasing range of scenarios. 

Myth 3: The most important benefit of autonomy is that the car doesn’t require a driver. 

Eliminating the need for a driver in cars may have an astounding impact on lifestyle and economics - making them dramatically easier to share, and park, etc…  But even if you need a driver autonomy has a huge benefit of making driving close to effortless and stress free.

However, a what should probably viewed as a much more important benefit of autonomy will be a reduction in traffic fatalities and injuries, and this benefit will start to manifest with semi-autonomous vehicles.  Over 1.25m people die annually worldwide in traffic fatalities and 20m - 50m people are injured, a leading cause of long term disability.  

Myth 4: High end sports cars like Porsche, will choose to forgo autonomy.

Porsche CEO Oliver Blume recently stated that his company has no plans to go driverless: “One wants to drive a Porsche by oneself”, he told a German newspaper.  However, he’s probably not thinking about this the right way. Porsche will have technical autonomy just as many of their vehicles have automatic transmissions. There may be some system akin to Tiptronic shifting, that lets you feel that you are driving 100%.  However, in 2020 when the car in front of your new Mission E slams on its brakes, the Porsche will stop whether or not the driver hits the brakes. If you’re about to side-swipe a car while lane-changing, the Porsche is not going to let you do that without a struggle. And yes, when you're stuck in traffic on the I-405, you’ll click a button and the Porsche will start driving itself - because that’s just additional software (which you’ll download) that uses the same set of sensors that provide safety features.  And if you special-ordered the version without these sensors, you’ll pay for it in insurance premiums and incredulous looks from your passengers.  Autonomous technology will prevent an increasing percentage of accidents and only the rare consumer will opt-out of these features.

Myth 5: It will be many years before autonomy has a meaningful impact in the market.  

Many forward thinkers feel the real impact of autonomous cars will be a long way out: 2025 or 2030. However, the greater likelihood is that the entire mindset around vehicle autonomy will shift as fast as it did around smartphones, starting next year. In 2018 when you can buy a Tesla Model 3 - for less than $40k - that has the technical capability to drive itself better than you in most situations, this will change how you think about transportation. Autonomy will become the most important feature on consumer vehicles. Even before regulation allows an empty driver’s seat, technical autonomy will start to dramatically impact the transportation landscape: commute considerations, road anxiety, driver staffing costs, insurance costs, senior citizen driving capabilities, and even real-estate values in many locations.

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Rahul Sonnad is co-founder and CEO of Tesloop. Over the last several months, Rahul has personally driven about 15,000 miles on Tesla’s Autopilot.  Tesloop’s cars are currently being driven on average 18k miles per month, and Tesloop’s first car has been driven over 115k miles on Autopilot since late last year.

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