Self-Driving Car Update
How Soon Will We Get Self-Driving Cars?

The big question about self-driving cars is “when?” On one hand, there are rumors that Google will start selling its self-driving cars next year. While even the Antiplanner doesn’t think that’s realistic, Ford is promising self-driving cars in 2019 and other manufacturers are saying 2020.

On the other hand, many are saying that, due to liability concerns and technical problems with such factors as rain and snow, it will take much longer than that. Another study predicts that, even if the first self-driving cars enter the market in the next decade, it will take several decades after that for them to dominate the roads.

The Antiplanner has written on this before, but the more I learn, the more I am convinced that the first self-driving cars will be for sale by 2020 and that they will be the dominant form of travel within not much more than a decade after that.

Partly the difference in predictions is between advocates of two different models of self-driving cars. One model relies heavily on vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. The problem with that, as a recent GAO study indicated, is that a single infrastructure station is likely to cost over $50,000. Putting one at every intersection and every freeway on- and off-ramp would cost billions of dollars. Updating them as new technology becomes available would be a nightmare. The advocates of this technology (which mostly includes people who expect to make money from it) are the most pessimistic about when self-driving cars will be available.

Google, Ford, Volkswagen, and the other companies experimenting with self-driving cars aren’t relying on such infrastructure. Instead, they are designing cars that sense the world around them and respond to what they sense. Sure, their sensors could be overwhelmed by a hard snowstorm, but they will work at least as well as human eyes in such situations.

The problem that many engineers worry about is what happens when a self-driving car can no longer handle the road conditions? Suppose you are engrossed in a novel and relying on your self-driving car to take you home when all of a sudden you enter a fog bank and your car decides it can’t drive any further. How many seconds warning can it give you that you will have to take over, and will you be able to make the transition in time?

One answer to this question is that a self-driving car will do what any rational human driver would do if he or she can’t see the road ahead, and that’s pull over to the side and stop. But another answer, which seems to be Ford’s and Google’s answer, is that they won’t market a car until it can handle all situations.

Instead of relying on infrastructure-to-vehicle technologies, the Google/Ford/Volkswagen etc. model is to use extremely detailed maps, known as high-definition or HD maps. Such maps measure exact lane widths, the heights of curbs, the exact locations of traffic signs and signals, and so forth.

The premiere high-definition mapmaker turns out to be a subsidiary of Nokia called Here. Recently, Nokia sold Here to a consortium consisting of Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW for more than $3 billion. The companies said their goal was to guarantee that the maps would be available to everyone (meaning, at least, German auto manufacturers) rather than monopolized by one high-tech company *cough* Google *cough*.

Here says it has already mapped 27 million miles of roads, with close to 2 million of them in the United States. Since the U.S. has 2.7 million miles of paved roads and another 1.3 million of unpaved roads, Here is about half done here. Not only is it mapping more every year, it makes literally millions of updates to its maps every day. Uber, meanwhile, has purchased Microsoft’s mapping division, and Google has its own mapping program.

Regardless of the source, such high-definition maps will be the heart of the self-driving cars of the near future. When Ford says it will have a car on the market in four years, it means that car will be able to drive anywhere that has high-definition maps, and human drivers would have to take over only when leaving mapped areas.

Although VW-Daimler-BMW wants the maps to be widely available, they probably won’t be free. Instead, auto owners will probably subscribe to a mapping service that not only updates the maps daily but also in response to where the auto is going. High-definition maps of the entire United States would probably fill many terabytes of memory, so your car will probably only have a subset of maps at any given time. If you plan a trip to other places, you’ll have your car download more maps, which may or may not be a part of your regular subscription.

Based on this, I find it completely reasonable to think that, by 2020, you’ll be able to buy a car that is completely self-driving on many roads and streets, but that may require you to take over on some little-used roads. Moreover, I think these cars will penetrate the market much faster than pessimists think, both because companies like Uber will make them available for-hire at rates of about 25 cents a mile, and because many cars built between now and 2020 will be easily upgradable to be self-driving cars. And, contrary to some expectations, such self-driving cars should almost completely replace transit (at least, outside of New York City) within a few years after they are introduced.

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15 thoughts on “Self-Driving Car Update
How Soon Will We Get Self-Driving Cars?

  1. FrancisKing

    “The Antiplanner has written on this before, but the more I learn, the more I am convinced that the first self-driving cars will be for sale by 2020 and that they will be the dominant form of travel within not much more than a decade after that.”

    OK. If it’s four years away, how much do they cost?

    Since we don’t have costs, can we assume that this is something that they’re still working on?

    If, as I suspect, the gee-wiz aspects will cost a lot, most car drivers will shrug and go back to the old, manual, way of doing stuff.

    “Although VW-Daimler-BMW wants the maps to be widely available, they probably won’t be free. ”

    Really? Once the customer has an expensive car, they’ve got to buy up maps in the right format, on a regular basis. This sounds like a license to print money.

    “Moreover, I think these cars will penetrate the market much faster than pessimists think, both because companies like Uber will make them available for-hire at rates of about 25 cents a mile, and because many cars built between now and 2020 will be easily upgradable to be self-driving cars.”

    So, the car does 10,000 miles a year, and pulls in $2,500 per year. What’s the cost of fuel, licenses, depreciation, finance? And how does a modern car, without the processing power of an automated car, get ‘easily upgraded’? Can I get a DIY kit from Maplin electronics?

    This is how it really is – people can see that the car is obsolete. The car is caught in an impossible storm of climate change, road safety, pollution, and health issues. But the car manufacturers won’t give up without a fight. We’ve had hydrogen fuel cells – electric cars – and now driving-themselves cars. How long before the demands for subsidies?

  2. metrosucks

    This is how it really is – people can see that the car is obsolete

    Well, we finally get to the stick part of the government planner’s hallucinations. And to think I assumed they were all the same all over the world. Gee, guess I am right.

    Well do tell us, professor, about your brilliant plan to have those shiny, $200 million a mile toy trains obsolete those boring, noisy, polluting, archaic cars. I’d die laughing if your claim wasn’t so preposterous, and yet so earnestly and confidently conveyed to us.

    Government planners are all assholes who think they know a lot more than they actually do, which is precisely zero.

  3. FrancisKing

    @ metrosucks.

    I understand that you don’t like railways, but it’s not a binary choice between cars and trains.

    There are plenty of alternatives out there. Or do you really believe that in a thousand years time we will still have cars? If not then, where is the obligation to have them now?

    I am neither a professor, not a government planner.

  4. mwbrady68

    @FancisKing says, “Really? Once the customer has an expensive car, they’ve got to buy up maps in the right format, on a regular basis. This sounds like a license to print money.”

    You never know what people will spend money on. As the price of cell phones were falling in the 1990s and early 2000s, who would have guessed that some people would happily pay $500+++ every few years to buy the latest one and pay $75 or much more each month to operate it?

  5. prk166

    It’ll be interesting to see which of these technologies become good enough & what business models emerge and survive.


    Here says it has already mapped 27 million miles of roads, with close to 2 million of them in the United States.
    ” ~anti-planner

    Having mapped 60,000+ KMs – much of it not roads but trails and sidewalks – million miles may sound like a lot but it’s nothing. It takes an incredible amount of resources to do. This is why even a busy street of a medium cities, google maps streetview only gets a pass every 5 or 10 years.

    Having fresh data is difficult problem to solve when it comes to mapping.

    I suspect that any cars that rely on maps for their daily operation will also be mapping. They’ll be taking video / pictures, GPS and sending that data back up to the service. If that’s the case, then you’ve removed the biggest- or at least one of the biggest – cost to the mapping service. The bandwidth and server CPU and storage are getting less and less expensive. Developing the software is the largest costs but that’s a one-time expense.

  6. Frank

    Cars are obsolete? Riiiiiiight. Only if one doesn’t understand the definition or engages in equivocation can one label cars as obsolete.

    Came to the comments expecting to see a bs attempt at rebuttal by the same sad character who is such a negative nilly about autonomous cars, and I wasn’t disappointed.

  7. Frank

    “The car is caught in an impossible storm of climate change”

    Passenger cars in the US generate only 10% of GHG emissions.

    “road safety, pollution, and health issues”

    Safety will be improved by autonmous cars, and pollution will be reduced.

    “We’ve had hydrogen fuel cells – electric cars – and now driving-themselves cars. How long before the demands for subsidies?”

    False equivalence and non- sequitur. The first two are fuel types, how cars are powered. Autonomous cars are about how cars are operated. So, bogus comparison. And the irrelevant conclusion about subsidies does not follow.

    It’s all empty rhetoric every time and ALWAYS lacking any real evidence. Hysteria-based rants.

  8. metrosucks

    I am neither a professor, not a government planner.

    Yet another obvious government planner type who won’t cough up to it. You’re so obviously connected to planning in some manner that it’s not even debatable. Why do all government planners deny their affiliation when online? Is it really so shameful?

  9. msetty

    From a pathetic troll who really should stop trying to mess with raccoons and their privates in the middle of the night; you get scratched and bit:
    Yet another obvious government planner type who won’t cough up to it. You’re so obviously connected to planning in some manner that it’s not even debatable. Why do all government planners deny their affiliation when online? Is it really so shameful?

    From a walking, babbling Dunning-Kruger Effect powered by tainted booze, weed, meth or some unpalatable combination thereof, or rabies…and probably subconsciously wants to cum subconsciously by being whipped or beat up by a “planner” in drag or at a boxing gym in Seattle, but too chickenshit to take the latter challenge in a “fair and square” conflict.

  10. metrosucks

    Msetty:

    you are the chicken shit, from a school in the middle of nowhere (I’ve been to Chino, btw). What, there weren’t any schools good enough for you in the Bay Area? Turned down Stanford because their faculty weren’t enthusiastic enough about toy trains or gay sex?

  11. metrosucks

    Chico, that is, before msetty seizes on that typo like a hungry Napa valley planner devours a tube steak. How come planners can never defend their plans on the merits, but instead turn to suggesting violence on their enemies? How come planners who are supposedly very respected in their field, and presumably successful, live with their mommy/sister/whatever on their exurban ranch, instead of the high density they so espouse? How come all planners do that? How come planners lie and treat the public with contempt? I could go on for years; you get the idea.

  12. gecko55

    On this topic at least the AP and I agree — the technologies and markets will develop rather faster than slower.

    The liability issues will get sorted and needn’t slow the progression of the technologies. Also keep in mind that the scenarios that are floated exist today so the question is whether the sensors and logic systems can function as effectively as a human. If the standard is a fully alert, sober, competent driver driving a safe, functional car, I’ll take the human. For a tired, distracted, possibly drunk person driving a beater, I’ll take the autonomous car. Lots of them on the road.

    I also think the AP is right to spotlight the importance of the mapping capabilities. That’s a big deal right now — witness the monies being spent in this area –and will continue to be an important factor in how the market develops. The sensors and logic systems are also a big deal, since, as the AP also noted, none of the mfg.’s envisions going the hard-wired infrastructure route.

    I’m not as sure as the AP, however, about the public transport implications. I think that will vary a lot from city-to-city. For sprawled places in the U.S., the AP’s prediction that autonomous cars will put public transport agencies out of business could be right — eventually. (And given this audience, a cheer goes up.) In places with well-established and functioning public transport systems (yes, there are many of them around the world), the impact of self-driving vehicles is less clear. I don’t own a car and mostly move around by foot, bike and public transport. For me personally, it’s hard to see how self-driving cars will affect me.

    But it will indeed be interesting to see how this all develops.

  13. CapitalistRoader

    AV’s @ 25¢/mile will destroy public transportation in almost every market. Only subways will survive due to their ability to avoid surface congestion. Voters will clamor to junk space-hogging and obstructive inner city buses and above ground trains. It doesn’t matter how well those existing technologies work now because door-to-door service will kill them, just like landlines are being destroyed by cell service. Why pay for phone service when you can’t take it with you when you leave the house? Why pay for urban transportation when you have to walk three blocks each way to use it?

  14. Frank

    “Why pay for urban transportation when you have to walk three blocks each way to use it?”

    Or when it takes several transfers? Or takes three times longer than driving? Or includes waiting outside in sketchy areas and/or in bad weather for a half hour?

  15. Not Sure

    Why pay for urban transportation when you have to walk three blocks each way to use it?

    The neighborhood where I live is nearly a mile from the nearest light rail stop, yet houses here are regularly described as being within walking distance in real estate ads. It’s over 100 degrees here for several months of the year. Nobody is walking three blocks in that kind of heat if they can avoid it, let alone a mile.

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