Last month, auto supplier Delphi demonstrated a self-driving Audi at CES in Las Vegas. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Delphi showed a self-driving Audi at CES last year, too. (In 2014, Delphi had a self-driving Tesla on hand instead.)
Delphi isn’t the only company that has turned autonomous tech into the car industry’s broken record, of course. Barely a week goes by that an automaker or supplier or legislator or regulator isn’t on a stage somewhere talking about the promise of autonomous driving. Everyone from Audi to Google has made self-driving ("or piloted driving," in Audi parlance) a central theme of their marketing campaigns.
I call this phenomenon — the endless, incremental announcement and re-announcement of advancements in self-driving tech without any appreciable user-facing benefit — the "hype gap." The hype gap is the distance between the promise of a technology and its actual delivery, if there ever is one at all. As someone who covers this stuff, it’s an ever-present threat to my sanity. And with self-driving in particular, I also fear that it’s going to impact the ability of the auto and tech industries to hold the public’s attention long enough to help realize some of the more ambitious promises of the technology in any reasonable amount of time.
The distance between the promise of a technology and its actual delivery
The hype gap isn’t unique to self-driving cars; it’s a risk for any emerging technology in any industry. Take virtual reality, for instance, which might finally get its breakout year in 2016 after false starts and overheated promises that perhaps set it back a full decade or more. The story is almost always a variation of the same basic principle: there’s a never-ending mismatch between public interest and the state of the technology at hand, and without having those two in equilibrium, it becomes exponentially more difficult to make meaningful progress.
With self-driving cars, that equation is complicated by several serious, unresolved issues. No one really knows who’s responsible when a self-driving car crashes, for instance. Volvo, which has been among the more vocal proponents of autonomous technology in service of reducing fatality rates, recently announced that it would accept that responsibility in an effort to move things along — but other automakers have yet to follow suit. And broad, complex regulations that govern cars and drivers need to be augmented or, in some cases, entirely rewritten to account for the notion that there might not be anyone at the wheel. And that process needs to be repeated dozens of times around the world, because regulations vary from locale to locale.
In the meantime, we wait
In the US, the Department of Transportation has indicated substantial interest in moving quickly on these sticky issues, but that doesn’t make them any less sticky. And in the meantime, we wait. I still can’t use an app to call that cute little car that Google first debuted a year and a half ago, and there’s no solid, reliable prediction of when I’ll be able to do that. Some technologists would have you believe we measure that wait in a small handful of years, if not less; as a realist with pessimistic tendencies, I tend to think we’re a little further out than that. And with each passing day, our collective interest turns to any of a number of other things, from the latest Trump tweet to a new iPhone rumor. Companies and bureaucrats need the constant pressure of a rapt audience to make self-driving cars happen quickly, but they won’t get that pressure indefinitely.
The concern is real. A feature story The Verge is publishing in the coming days will help illustrate how the hype gap contributed, at least in some part, to the developmental stasis of one of the autonomous car’s ancestors.
Ford, which has only very recently begun talking at length about its ambitions for a self-driving car and has been rumored to be considering a tie-up with Google, has been taking a more measured approach. "We have to have a very considered view of what we think the realistic timing is," CEO Mark Fields told me earlier this year. "And not be saying, ‘well, we’re 25 percent sure this could happen.’ Because then you set yourself up for disappointment, you set the consumers up for disappointment. […] I think the key is being very transparent along the way and showing progress along the way. That’s the best way of proving that you’re actually delivering on what you said you were going to deliver. Now if something comes up that knocks you off of that? You have to be very transparent around that as well."
Kia announced at CES this year that it's working on self-driving technology.
Keeping us abreast of progress is great, but it still doesn’t make a technology feel real and tangible. The only thing that does that is… well, when the technology becomes tangible for real, everyday people. The trickle of progress updates from the industry is already measured in years, and by the time that Google car is in your driveway, I believe it’ll be measured in decades — and I’m not alone in that sense.
None of this is to say I’m suggesting that autonomous cars are vaporware. Quite the contrary — they’re one of the most thrilling and concrete developments in transportation in the last century, and they do exist. Tesla has even started beta testing autonomous highway driving with its customers, and other automakers will be launching similar capabilities over the next one to two years.
Self-driving cars aren't vaporware — it just feels like it sometimes
But we’ve reached the phase where we need to manage the hype gap very, very aggressively, either by scaling back the excruciatingly iterative news cycle, making technical and legislative progress more quickly, or both. We have already been well primed for the fully autonomous car at this point, so when Kia releases footage to prove that it, too, is testing an autonomous car, it doesn’t foster much excitement anymore. Really, it barely fosters much of a reaction at all.
I want the Popular Science-esque vision of the fully self-driving car in my lifetime. I’ve had it described to me over and over again: a silent, comfortable ride from doorstep to doorstep, no steering wheel in sight, while I kick back and watch Netflix. I suspect we’d all like to see that happen, and I’ve been assured repeatedly that we’re getting there. But it’s not going to happen with another missive on the promise of the autonomous car, or with a beautiful illustration of the metropolis of tomorrow — it’s going to happen with restraint and hustle. Let’s bridge this hype gap, preferably in a Tesla Model S P90D in Autopilot mode.