In the past decade, autonomous driving has gone from “maybe possible” to “definitely possible” to “inevitable” to “how did anyone ever think this wasn’t inevitable?” to “now commercially available.” In December 2018, Waymo, the company that emerged from Google’s self-driving-car project, officially started its commercial self-driving-car service in the suburbs of Phoenix. At first, the program was underwhelming: available only to a few hundred vetted riders, and human safety operators remained behind the wheel. But in the past four years, Waymo has slowly opened the program to members of the public and has begun to run robotaxis without drivers inside. The company has since brought its act to San Francisco. People are now paying for robot rides.
And it’s just a start. Waymo says it will expand the service’s capability and availability over time. Meanwhile, its onetime monopoly has evaporated. Every significant automaker is pursuing the tech, eager to rebrand and rebuild itself as a “mobility provider. Amazon bought a self-driving-vehicle developer, Zoox. Autonomous trucking companies are raking in investor money. Tech giants like Apple, IBM, and Intel are looking to carve off their slice of the pie. Countless hungry startups have materialized to fill niches in a burgeoning ecosystem, focusing on laser sensors, compressing mapping data, setting up service centers, and more.
This 21st-century gold rush is motivated by the intertwined forces of opportunity and survival instinct. By one account, driverless tech will add $7 trillion to the global economy and save hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few decades. Simultaneously, it could devastate the auto industry and its associated gas stations, drive-thrus, taxi drivers, and truckers. Some people will prosper. Most will benefit. Some will be left behind.
It’s worth remembering that when automobiles first started rumbling down manure-clogged streets, people called them horseless carriages. The moniker made sense: Here were vehicles that did what carriages did, minus the hooves. By the time “car” caught on as a term, the invention had become something entirely new. Over a century, it reshaped how humanity moves and thus how (and where and with whom) humanity lives. This cycle has restarted, and the term “driverless car” may soon seem as anachronistic as “horseless carriage.” We don’t know how cars that don’t need human chauffeurs will mold society, but we can be sure a similar gear shift is on the way.
The First Self-Driving Cars
Just over a decade ago, the idea of being chauffeured around by a string of zeros and ones was ludicrous to pretty much everybody who wasn’t at an abandoned Air Force base outside Los Angeles, watching a dozen driverless cars glide through real traffic. That event was the Urban Challenge, the third and final competition for autonomous vehicles put on by Darpa, the Pentagon’s skunkworks arm.
At the time, America’s military-industrial complex had already thrown vast sums and years of research trying to make unmanned trucks. It had laid a foundation for this technology, but stalled when it came to making a vehicle that could drive at practical speeds, through all the hazards of the real world. So, Darpa figured, maybe someone else—someone outside the DOD’s standard roster of contractors, someone not tied to a list of detailed requirements but striving for a slightly crazy goal—could put it all together. It invited the whole world to build a vehicle that could drive across California’s Mojave Desert, and whoever’s robot did it the fastest would get a million-dollar prize.
The 2004 Grand Challenge was something of a mess. Each team grabbed some combination of the sensors and computers available at the time, wrote their own code, and welded their own hardware, looking for the right recipe that would take their vehicle across 142 miles of sand and dirt of the Mojave. The most successful vehicle went just seven miles. Most crashed, flipped, or rolled over within sight of the starting gate. But the race created a community of people—geeks, dreamers, and lots of students not yet jaded by commercial enterprise—who believed the robot drivers people had been craving for nearly forever were possible, and who were suddenly driven to make them real.
They came back for a follow-up race in 2005 and proved that making a car drive itself was indeed possible: Five vehicles finished the course. By the 2007 Urban Challenge, the vehicles were not just avoiding obstacles and sticking to trails but following traffic laws, merging, parking, even making safe, legal U-turns.
When Google launched its self-driving car project in 2009, it started by hiring a team of Darpa Challenge veterans. Within 18 months, they had built a system that could handle some of California’s toughest roads (including the famously winding block of San Francisco’s Lombard Street) with minimal human involvement. A few years later, Elon Musk announced Tesla would build a self-driving system into its cars. And the proliferation of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft weakened the link between being in a car and owning that car, helping set the stage for a day when actually driving that car falls away too. In 2015, Uber poached dozens of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University—a robotics and artificial intelligence powerhouse—to get its effort going.