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Roundtable: What Will the Future With Driverless Cars Look Like?

Autonomous vehicles are on the way, but when they will become commonplace and which company will shepherd them in is still unclear

AP Images/Ringer GIF

Last week, the legal battle between Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo came to an unceremonious end when the warring companies reached a settlement, thus resolving the first great battle over driverless car technology. It’s certainly not the end of hearing about driverless cars, though, and with that controversy put to rest, we’re closer than ever to a future where cars drive people and not the other way around.

Carlos Ghosn, chairman of Groupe Renault, Nissan Motor Co., and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., told Bloomberg that these autonomous vehicles will be used everywhere within six years. Some people are less optimistic. In London, lawmakers released a report this month arguing that the city will not be ready for widespread driverless car use before the 2030s. A recent New York Times Magazine interactive imagined what a “20 percent” world would look like—that is, a point in the near future when 20 percent of the cars on the road are autonomous.

It got me thinking: Do you think this “20 percent” world will arrive soon? And what do you think it will look like? —Kate Knibbs

Victor Luckerson: Perhaps 20 percent could arrive “soon”—let’s define soon as within five years—within certain dense, affluent cities where people tend to rapidly embrace technology and ridesharing networks like Lyft and Uber are already at massive scale. So, basically just San Francisco. I feel like there are a lot of regulatory and psychological hurdles to surmount elsewhere. Though, I am starting to believe the hype that the technological challenge has largely been solved, or it will be very soon.

Alyssa Bereznak: I do worry that some of the unsavory details in the Uber-Waymo case indicate that these tech companies are charging forward too fast. All of [founder and former CEO of Uber] Travis Kalanick’s talk about “cheat codes” and winning at all costs makes me think tech companies might be cutting corners on this technology, safety-wise. That being said, I think people are much closer to giving up control to their cars that you might think. A recent U.S. study found a slight uptick in people who said they’d trust riding in an autonomous vehicle. Whether those people might change their mind once they get behind the wheel of a self-driving car is a whole other story.

Knibbs: I have never tested out riding in one, so I’m not sure how I would react—but as a truly terrible driver, I actually have a lot of confidence that a robot could do better than I can.

Luckerson: I rode in my first driverless car at CES in Las Vegas. It was … much smoother than a taxi ride.

Bereznak: Ooh, do tell, Victor. Which family member’s driving style did it most accurately mimic?

Luckerson: Cautious grandma, for sure.

Bereznak: There’s nothing wrong with cautious grandma! I suppose it’s a smart strategy to bore us into a slightly freaky future full of cars that think for themselves.

Luckerson: The car was in autonomous mode for the most part (Lyft claims more than 99 percent of the time in its CES demo was spent in autonomous mode), but it got tripped up once waiting for a bus that had stopped in front of it, rather than being more aggressive and merging into the lane of traffic next to us.

Ben Lindbergh: I am looking forward to our driverless future, as evidenced by my previous post on the subject entitled, “Looking Forward to Our Driverless Future.” As a Manhattan holdout who still doesn’t have a driver’s license and hopes he’ll never need to, I have a personal stake in the driverless vehicle’s success.

I don’t worry about entrusting my life to a computer. I already feel like I surrender control every time I enter a vehicle driven by a human—or, for that matter, every time I send an email that I wouldn’t want the world to read. I do wish we could somehow skip the period where driverless cars will have to contend with our fallible brains and go straight to the stage where the AI has the highway to itself. The biggest threat to the technology’s development is probably the need to navigate our own tendency to screw up. I was very disappointed to read recently that the next generation of driverless vehicles “will not spray water in your face” to wake you up if you’re still asleep when you’re supposed to take the wheel.

Knibbs: Let’s get the #MakeCarsThatSprayWaterOnOurFaces campaign going!

Lindbergh: It might make them more likable, at least. Spraying water in someone’s face is a time-tested source of comedy.

Bereznak: I just tried out the new Tesla Model 3. And while its super cruise control feature doesn’t do that, it does occasionally punish you if you’re being a negligent driver.

Luckerson: Electroshock?

Bereznak: It almost sounds plausible coming from an Elon Musk–run company. But no.

Lindbergh: At least deactivate the heated seats. Those things are just asking to put people to sleep.

Bereznak: It’ll beep at you, and do a bunch of stuff on screen to let you know you’re doing something dangerous and you need to pay more attention. And if you keep violating its rules, it’ll literally revoke cruise control access for the rest of the day—sort of like taking away a kid’s Game Boy. (By the way, Tesla is super careful not to characterize this feature as a form of autonomous driving, but I was able to completely let go in stop-and-go traffic on the West Side Highway yesterday, and the car totally held its own.)

Knibbs: Wait, when it beeps, is it like an “indoor beep” just at the driver? Or a full-blown honk?

Bereznak: Like a screen beep, as if you were on a computer and you hit too many keys at once.

Knibbs: I was just gonna say, the last thing Manhattan needs is more beeping!

Luckerson: I know Tesla has been adding more warnings and restrictions on autopilot since a Tesla driver died in a collision using that mode back in 2016. Autopilot mode wasn’t found to be at fault, but any incident like this automatically makes people extremely anxious about driverless cars. And then Elon Musk will say something to the effect of “someone had to die so that future driverless car users could live” which is statistically sound, but also the exact wrong thing to say.

I’m curious what company will become the most effective salesman of driverless cars, the way Apple made touch-screen phones feel immediately essential. I don’t think it’s Tesla.

Do you have any front-runners in mind for ushering us into a driverless future?

Luckerson: Lyft and Uber’s ability to tightly control where cars travel on their network, and their huge customer bases, give them a big advantage. I think the automakers are gonna have to go through them to get people to use their autonomous vehicles, at first at least. I still don’t really get what Waymo’s plan is.

Bereznak: I actually think Tesla might be a good contender in this department! The company considers its customers to be evangelists. It doesn’t really do advertising campaigns, and when a person buys a car, it comes with an in-person instructional tutorial. The way they set up their company, marketing responsibilities are actually distributed to their drivers in subtle ways.

And I don’t know whether you know any Tesla owners, but they’re always offering to let other people drive their cars! My mom’s friend Joan is always offering to let people drive her Tesla.

Knibbs: Sounds like I need to meet some Tesla owners.

Bereznak: Then her son crashed the car and she bought a new Tesla. (Yes, I am from Silicon Valley.)

We’ve touched on this a bit with how there’s still anxiety about driverless cars, but what do you think the biggest obstacles to widespread adoption are? Convincing people they’re safe or something else?

Lindbergh: There’s the risk that millions of human drivers may lose their jobs, the worry that trolls will hold up traffic because they know the robots won’t run them over, and the concern that autonomous travel won’t be as efficient as it could be because we’ll just start traveling more or leaving later. Plus, we aren’t sure when the tech will work in non-urban areas, or how long it will take for costs to come down.

I wonder, though, whether regulators and lawmakers can keep pace with engineers. The need to redefine a “driver” as a vehicle that operates itself instead of a person that operates a vehicle, and the confusion over whether legislators at the state or federal levels should be taking the lead in that effort (and others) might mean that we’ll have fancy sci-fi vehicles long before everyone is legally permitted to drive them. Maybe what we really need is a robot representative government.

Luckerson: Don’t give Zuckerberg more ideas.