Automotive technology is rapidly advancing on all fronts. This past year saw several massively important developments ranging from vehicle-to-vehicle communication to the advent of 48-volt electrical systems. To be sure, self-driving cars dominated the automotive news over the last 12 months.
Hardly a week went by without a significant autonomous vehicle announcement from an automaker, tech company, ride-sharing service, or other player in the increasingly crowded self-driving car space. In particular, there were three pivotal moments for self-driving cars that will help define its course over the next year and beyond.
1) Tesla Autopilot Crash
The first death due to self-driving technology occurred last May when a Tesla Model S owned and driven by Joshua Brown fatally struck a semi on a Florida highway while the car’s Autopilot feature was engaged. As the truck turned left across the highway, “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” Tesla explained in a blog post following the accident. (Brown had earlier posted videos on YouTube of his car operating on Autopilot, one of which showed his car avoiding a collision.)
The accident sparked a media sensation and caused regulators and observers to question whether Tesla was doing enough to educate owners on the system’s limitations. Germany lawmakers even considered banning Tesla’s use of the term “Autopilot” in its advertising. Regardless, Brown’s tragic death served as a reminder that full autonomy is still a little bit down the road. Meanwhile, last month Tesla announced that all of its new vehicles would soon have Autopilot capability.
2) Ford Robo-Taxi Announcement
Many automakers, tech companies, and others in the self-driving derby have announced they would make autonomous cars available in three to five years, but usually with few specifics. However, this past August, Ford became the first to provide a firm deadline and details.
The Detroit car company declared that it would make fully autonomous vehicles available by 2021—but don’t expect to buy one by then. Ford said the vehicles would be designed “to operate without a steering wheel, gas or brake pedal, for use in commercial mobility services such as ride sharing and ride hailing within geo-fenced areas and be available in high volumes.”
This means that Ford is planning a robo-taxi service that will operate in limited (and likely urban) environments only. And in the hotly contested autonomous vehicle space, it also meant we could expect others will try to beat Ford to punch. In fact…
3) Uber’s Testing of Autonomous Cars in Pittsburgh
A month after the Ford announcement, ride-sharing giant Uber unveiled a fleet of self-driving Fusions that it started immediately testing on the streets of Pittsburgh. The cars have steering wheels and pedals as well as a human driver behind the wheel to take control, but otherwise are fully autonomous and available to customers of the ride-sharing service.
This month Uber expanded testing of its self-driving technology, this time in several Volvo XC90 SUVs, to San Francisco. However, the brash startup that’s now valued at more than $60 billion didn’t bother to apply for a self-driving permit from the California DMV, like others testing the technology in the state. And this has led to a legal showdown with California, which eventually caused Uber to bow out.
Self-Driving Will Accelerate in 2017
With each passing year, we see self-driving technology progress past boundaries most didn’t even imagine even a few years ago. These are just three highlights in autonomous tech, but there were plenty of other significant developments—from GM’s acquisition of the autonomous technology startup Cruise Automation for a reported $1 billion at the beginning of the year to Google’s announcement last week that it’s spinning off its self-driving car project as the independent company Waymo.
And with the way things are going, self-driving technology will only accelerate in 2017. Hold tight!