I saw a tweet today that jolted me out of my self-imposed cynical journalist mindset as it relates to self-driving cars.
It was a short video of two guys trying to catch up to a fully driverless Waymo vehicle in Chandler, a town outside Phoenix, Arizona. “There’s no one in this car!” one guy yells exuberantly, before urging his companion to drive “faster. I need to get to the front seat.” They accelerate and, lo and behold, there is indeed no one in this car. The clip ends with the two guys screaming in unison.
Waymo has been increasing the number of its fully driverless vehicles in the Phoenix area lately, so it makes sense that we would see a corresponding uptick in reactions on social media. But I have yet to come across anyone with such an enthusiastic reaction as these guys. It was a helpful reminder of how this technology will change a lot of people’s basic assumptions about driving and transportation.
I’ve been writing about self-driving cars for over five years now, and in the process, I’ve become somewhat inured to the technology. I’ve ridden in a dozen-or-so test cars, seen the technology up close, heard the big proclamations, and I think it’s safe to say the thrill is gone. (Poor me, right?)
I’ve also learned to take with a big grain of salt many of the bold predictions about safety and road-readiness from autonomous vehicle developers. Many of their self-imposed deadlines to launch a robot taxi service have failed to come about, and the switch from human-driven to autonomous transport appears further out than ever. The industry is said to be in a “trough of disillusionment.”
Try telling that to the guy who shot the Waymo video. His name is Gavin Vandine, and he says that his excitement was genuine, mostly because he has more than a passing familiarity with the complex systems that are needed to make a car drive itself.
“All three of my friends in that car went to school for computer systems engineering and our embedded systems course was basically an autonomous driving class,” he said. “We modded an RC car to act on remote coordinate input and through ultrasonic sensors, LIDAR, and softwalls, it worked its way to a destination. I only say all this because I think that’s what added to the excitement.”
He added, “We learned about this, have spoken about this before, and we happened to be together when we all saw it for the first time. It was a cool moment.”
The excitement from Gavin and his friend was a helpful reminder that the vast majority of people in the US and around the world are still totally in the woods when it comes to autonomous vehicles. The number of self-driving cars on the road today is a fraction of a fraction of the total number of personally owned vehicles. We’re only just now seeing some form of a commercial business emerge.
It makes sense that most people are skeptical, or even fearful, about the idea of self-driving cars. It also makes sense that you’d totally freak out if you saw a ghost car just driving down the street.
It’s early days. It’s good to be skeptical about what these companies are selling. It’s also okay to be excited.