Waymo Waymo

A User's Guide to the Dawn of Robot Driving

By 2021 there will be 51,000 autonomous vehicles on roads worldwide, with sales projected to rise to nearly 1 million by 2025 and an estimated 33 million by 2040.

The wait for the self-driving future is coming to an end. The earliest real-world applications of autonomous vehicles will arrive in 2018.

Starting in Phoenix this year, a small number of commuters will be riding in driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans as part of a trial conducted by Waymo, the self-driving car unit owned by Google’s parent company. For the first time, ordinary people just trying to get to work will be interacting with autonomous vehicles. Waymo has promised to broaden the test to a wider market soon.

Other major players will spend this year preparing for the imminent introduction of driverless vehicles. By 2019, General Motor Co. expects to deploy electric Chevy Bolt robot taxis in big U.S. cities. Uber Technologies Inc. has also pledged to launch a fleet of self-driving Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles in that time frame. Tesla Inc. missed a self-imposed deadline for a coast-to-coast driverless excursion by the end of 2017, but CEO Elon Musk still promises that full autonomy is coming soon to the electric automaker's models.

The major players are gathering this week in Las Vegas at CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, to showcase products meant to overhaul human mobility. To provide a peek into the arrival of the autonomous age, we spoke to industry leaders and transportation experts. The idea was to fill in the blanks on how we will interact with the first driverless vehicles.

It’s been 10 years since automated driving had its “Kitty Hawk moment,” in which researchers proved that the technology could work just as the Wright Brothers demonstrated the possibility of flight. Now comes the time to put some practical use behind hype. This century’s transportation revolution, if it works as expected, will reach the public on the back of billions invested by the world’s biggest and richest companies, such as Alphabet Inc., Ford Motor Co. and Daimler AG. The earliest uses will be in services, not privately owned vehicles.

“This is going to be a big revolution,” Ashwani Gupta, global head of Renault-Nissan’s light commercial vehicle business, said in an interview. “And it will begin in both people movers and material movers.”

In just a few years these companies are promising to fill the roads with robo-taxis, driverless delivery vehicles, and sentient shuttles that will transform the way we move, upend industries, and ultimately reduce deaths by car accidents. By 2021 there will be 51,000 autonomous vehicles on roads worldwide, according to a new forecast from IHS Markit, with sales projected to rise to nearly 1 million by 2025 and an estimated 33 million by 2040.

But the dawn of autonomous driving will be tentative and tightly controlled. “I don’t care what GM or Waymo say,” said Mike Ramsey, a transportation analyst with researcher Gartner Inc., “the idea that these will be free-range vehicles that can go anywhere is not realistic.”

The first robot rides will operate at low speeds, moving cautiously enough even in dense traffic that urban planners may add specifically defined pickup areas and slow lanes for automated vehicles. That will help prevent rear-enders and other similar crashes that result from impatient, inattentive humans. There will also probably be human minders, either on board or monitoring remotely, poised to take control if artificial intelligence needs to be replaced with the biological variety.

Here’s a look at three scenarios that experts and insiders expect to reach the roads first.

Robot Taxi

Summoning a robot taxi won’t feel any different than ordering up a ride with a human driver. You open an app on your phone, punch in your destination, and immediately get a response. That’s where things begin to get different.

Your trip from an office in Manhattan to a restaurant downtown would start once you meet your robo-taxi at a designated pickup area for autonomous vehicles. Separate pickup and drop-off areas will make it simpler and safer for the robot to find its fare without the clutter of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. You will know the white Chevy Bolt is for you because it will flash your name in a light bar just above the windshield—or, if you prefer privacy, the display will flash a number you select.

As it pulls up, the small SUV greets you with a computer voice: "Hello, Mr. Jones." You punch in a code on the door; it unlocks and slides open.

Inside, an animated screen near your seat shows the route you will be taking to the restaurant. Your path is represented by a green arrow coursing through the streets of New York, while the screen also shows pedestrians in white, cyclists in yellow, and the urban canyon of buildings you’re passing through.

Halfway there you realize you have no cash and remember that the restaurant you’re heading to doesn’t accept credit cards. You press a button overhead that connects you to a human attendant, who says, "How can I help you, Mr. Jones?" You explain you need cash and ask if you can make a quick stop at the nearest ATM. The attendant finds the closest bank and re-routes the taxi. You grab some cash and are quickly on your way again, feeling reassured you can make a human connection and have some control over the robot.

“Having that connection is important for building trust,” said Sherif Markaby, vice president of autonomous vehicles at Ford. “People inside the vehicle need to feel comfortable and confident.”

You arrive for dinner a little late. The drop-off point is in a designated area for autonomous vehicles, a few steps away from an old-fashioned valet line used by human drivers. The hurly-burly of the valet could be a sensory overload for the robot, so it steers clear and stops in its own space of solace. As you exit the vehicle, the Bolt says, "Good evening, Mr. Jones, and thank you for riding with us." Reflexively, you respond, "You’re welcome."

Pros: No driver to tip, and the fare is likely to be lower because robo-taxis cost less than half as much to operate as human-driven cabs. Drivers account for as much as 60% of the cost of a cab.

Cons: Robots drive slower than grandma. They obey all traffic laws, so there’s no speeding or rushing to make a light. And they cautiously defer to aggressive drivers and pedestrians, which can lead to long pauses in your commute as the car lets others go first.

Driverless Delivery

Fido is running low on dog food, so you order a 25-pound bag with a shopping app on your phone. Within hours, the bag is on a semi truck, still driven for now by a human, headed for a warehouse on the outskirts of Phoenix. The semi sends signals over Wi-Fi on the contents of its cargo to a phalanx of small driverless delivery vans waiting at the depot. When the big rig arrives, its contents are dispersed to the vans via an automated logistics system of conveyors that sorts items by destination.

These driverless vans fan out to carry their cargo to customers throughout the city. They travel mostly on surface streets, going no faster than about 35 miles per hour. If a robotic delivery van takes to the highway—unlikely in the early stages of deployment—it would probably travel in a dedicated lane to avoid snarling traffic with its slow-moving ways.

Devoid of a driver’s cockpit, the battery-powered vans look like a metal cube on wheels. They are a study in function over form, maximizing cargo carrying and minimizing style. The vans will also be marked with special lighting above the windshield to alert other drivers and pedestrians that they are driverless.

“We should not make an animal that looks like it’s from another planet,” said Gupta of Renault-Nissan, which is unveiling its driverless van at the Hanover Motor Show in Germany this year. “We will make a very simple box on wheels that we call a pod.”

As your delivery arrives in front of your apartment, you receive a notification on your phone that your bag of dog food is waiting at the curb. Since the robot ride has no way to get the package inside, you must fetch it yourself. You walk out, enter a code on a touch-pad beside a sliding door on the van, and match a bar code on your phone to one on your package to retrieve it.

Pros: Trips to the grocery store can easily be replaced by driverless pods, which will even offer temperature-controlled units that carry meat and produce. Everything you order can be brought to your curb.

Cons: You must pad out to the street to fetch your goods from the pod. Drones may one day carry your packages to your door or temperature-controlled delivery box, but that’s years away. "The delivery vehicle has a last-50-foot problem," Gartner’s Ramsey said.

Autonomous Shuttles

You’ve just picked up your bags from baggage claim, and now you’re making your way to the rental car counter. Even though the vehicle you borrow won’t yet be automated, the way you get there will be. As you step outside, an airport shuttle van trundles up, and two doors in the middle of the van part, revealing standing room for passengers. There’s no driver, just an attendant to help you with your bags. The presence of an employee reassures you it’s safe, even though this box-on-wheels has no apparent rail line to guide it through airport sprawl.

Airports, corporate office parks, and student campuses have been the launchpads for autonomous vehicles to take their first, tentative spins. Repetitive routes and enclosure from traffic make these safer spaces to teach autonomous machines. Self-driving shuttles are also the first vehicles to be designed with driverless transport in mind, says Glen DeVos, chief technology officer of Aptiv, which is supplying some of the tech.

French startup Navya is already operating an autonomous shuttle along fixed routes in Las Vegas and on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, as well as in Europe. Transdev, which operates shuttles in Europe, is scheduled to begin running routes in Florida this year.

Pros:  These driverless shuttles are already here. The ease of adoption means that trips through institutional spaces such as airports will likely be the public’s first brush with automated driving.

Cons: Being first means making mistakes in the public eye. As Navya learned from a collision with a delivery truck during its Las Vegas debut, anticipating and communicating with human drivers is still one of the toughest nuts to crack.

By Keith Naughton and Gabrielle Coppola

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