A coming milestone in the automobile world is the widespread rollout of Level 4 autonomy, where the car drives itself without supervision. Waymo, the company spun out of Google’s self-driving car research, said it would start a commercial Level 4 taxi service by late 2018, although that hadn’t happened as of press time. And GM Cruise, in San Francisco, is committed to do the same in 2019, using a Chevrolet Bolt that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals.
These cars wouldn’t work in all conditions and regions—that’s why they’re on rung 4 and not rung 5 of the autonomy ladder. But within some limited operational domain, they’ll have the look and feel of a fully robotized car. The question is how constrained that domain will be.
It’s 2018, and you may be asking yourself, “Where are all the driverless cars?” Well, they’re already here, driving at extremely low speeds in tightly geofenced areas in over a dozen cities, in what is probably the most low-key, unassuming start to a global paradigm shift that we’ve ever seen.
We can all be forgiven for assuming that completely unencumbered driverless cars were right around the corner. After all, the purveyors of such technology lead us to believe as much, promising coast-to-coast demonstrations and selling us on the prospect of sleeping while driving. But the reality is much different: low-speed autonomous pods are currently operating all over the country, racking up an impressive number of trips while barely drawing any attention for it. As billion-dollar companies like Google, Uber, Ford, and GM scramble to perfect their high-profile robot taxi projects before they launch, smaller, more nimble startups are making progress in lower-stakes pilots that are operating right under our noses.
General Motors keeps pushing the envelope in ride-sharing, expanding its Maven service to Austin and Toronto. Now, reportedly, GM is adding an Airbnb-style service that will enable car owners to rent out their vehicles when they aren’t using them.