When I get in discussions with people about the future of self-driving cars, people often raise concerns and say something like “I’m not sure I’ll be comfortable the first time I get into a self-driving car.” I think they’re wrong, but for different reasons than they’re likely thinking.
I suspect when someone “won’t be comfortable”, they’re picturing a self-driving car with no steering wheel coming to pick up them up next year and how strange that would be, and they’re right — it’d be really strange! The thing is, it won’t happen that way.
Really, it’ll be a very gradual change, kinda like this:
- Your car can stay at a set speed automatically: this is just cruise control, which we’ve had for years.
- Your car can stay at a set speed, but slow down when traffic is in front of it: this is adaptive cruise control, which many cars have.
- Your car can stay in its own lane: some cars do this now.
- Your car can navigate down the highway without your help: some cars can do this now, but you still need to be in control.
- Your car can navigate down the highway without your help at all: not too far away.
- Your car can navigate almost everywhere, and requests human intervention every now and then.
- You car can navigate everywhere, and you’re not needed.
- The steering wheel is removed since it’s never needed.
Step #8 seems really scary, and I think it would be if I hopped in an Uber next week and it was driverless and steering wheel-less. #8 is a long way off. Before that happens, we’ll have #7 in our lives for years. We’ll very slowly get used to being driven around by self-driving cars. At some point, the steering wheel will have the ability to retract when not needed, and then at some point later it’ll go away and we won’t really notice.
When does it happen?
So in my list above, when are you “getting into a self-driving car”? Maybe around step #6? Perhaps #7? It’s going to happen so slowly that we won’t even notice, so for the vast majority of people there won’t be a big “Ooh, my first time in a self-driving car!” moment — it’ll just happen.
Of course, it doesn’t stop with step #8 above. I think there is one more huge step, but we’re likely 30-50 years away from it:
9. No human drivers allowed on the roads: they can go to special “driving parks” or something.
The future of self-driving cars is amazing. We’ll each save hundreds of hours per year, and collectively we’ll save millions of lives. Getting there will be fun to watch, but don’t expect a big “ah-ha!” moment.