In a world where flying taxis and hover bots are long overdue, you could be forgiven for assuming driverless cars are more science fiction than fact. But with rapid advancements in technology and an ever-increasing number of development programs underway, it seems certain that this is one futuristic promise set to become reality.
Big Automakers Embrace Driverless Tech
Serious driverless R&D has been bubbling for a long while, with Carnegie Mellon's Navlab and the Mercedes-Benz Prometheus project both yielding successful tests back in the '80s. But despite the potential for business innovation, the field went stagnant after those early triumphs, until the last 10 years.
Since 2010, nearly every big manufacturer has announced a driverless car development program, including General Motors, Volkswagen and Nissan. Volkswagen's efforts have been typical of such programs, with incremental steps like its Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP) system, which requires driver supervision while the car handles itself at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.
Still, the biggest momentum toward market-wide applications has come from players outside the old-guard auto industry -- most notably Google, Tesla and Uber. Though Nissan released a handful of its Infiniti Q50 automobiles equipped with driverless technology, Tesla's AutoPilot program was the first to reach wide release, with the promise that all of its driverless-capable vehicles would be upgraded with the relevant software by 2017.
Google began its driverless efforts in secret in 2009 and spun off the research division in 2016. The resulting company, Waymo, is less focused on long-haul freeway driving, and instead plans to offer products most useful for daily commuting and town trips, backed by Google's extensive mapping and imaging technologies.
While Uber is only indirectly involved in the development of actual driverless technology, it's the first company with concrete plans to find a widespread application, and hopes to eventually replace many of its human drivers with autonomous vehicles.
Until recently, any fender benders or other accidents were limited to test tracks and partially closed courses, but with the wider release of Tesla's AutoPilot and Google's expanded testing runs, real-world accidents began occurring.
In February 2016, a Google car was involved in the first accident not directly attributed to another (human) driver being at fault, when one of its driverless cars side-swiped a bus while attempting to avoid sandbags in the road.
In May that year, a Tesla AutoPilot car was involved in the first fatal accident of an autonomous vehicle, when the car's sensors failed to distinguish a white tractor trailer against a bright sky, causing it to drive directly underneath the truck and killing the driver/passenger.
Still, while nearly every major research program has experienced accidents, all but the two mentioned above have involved mistakes from other human drivers on the road, making for a remarkable safety record even for these early-generation systems.
Predictions for the Future
Despite such growing pains, experts remain strictly bullish on the future of the driverless market.
Analysts say two primary factors are expected to send the world on a fast path towards an all-driverless future: safety and the technology curve.
Since the millennium, adoption of new technologies has accelerated sharply. It took nearly 60 years for the radio to reach 100 percent of households, but well under 10 for smartphones. Each technological advance transformed the world in a fundamental way, and consumers are expected to jump at the chance to get on board when driverless tech goes mainstream.
Research has also predicted a driverless future would reduce auto accidents by as much as 90 percent, marking a clear incentive for governments to steer policy in that direction.
Even just a handful of driverless cars on the road is expected to significantly reduce traffic jams, and it's easy to imagine a "Minority Report"-style future with fleets of completely autonomous vehicles shifting through traffic in perfect, computer-coordinated synchronization.
A concurrent spike in car-sharing and parking habits is set to transform urban landscapes around the world, and many experts believe driverless technology may spur the sort of techno-utopian city design that's been on the horizon for decades.
In the near-term, experts estimate that 10 million autonomous vehicles will be on the road by 2020, while analysts in the UK have predicted that every car in Britain will be driverless by 2050. Whatever the final form, it seems clear that in one way or another the future of driving is most certainly autonomous.
Avi Savar is CEO and Managing Partner of Dreamit, a top venture accelerator and early stage investment fund. He is the author of Content to Commerce and consults globally on trends in digital media, disruptive technologies and corporate innovation. He has been featured on Fox News, Forbes, Mashable, Business Insider, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, the New York Times and is a contributing editor for Inc.