Driverless car technology is the wild west right now. Every car manufacturer has their own skunkworks working on their own technology. Nobody except Elon Musk seems to want to share. They’re stuck in the mindset of keeping technology proprietary. Standards are a great thing. They lead to consistency, common suppliers, lower costs and potentially lower recalls.
Google’s goofy, Beetle-esque fully self-driving car is pretty cool as a proof-of-concept. A vehicle with absolutely no driver inputs. No steering wheel, no pedals. You just get in and ride to wherever you tell the car to go. And it works. So far, it’s limited to 25 mph on this generation of test vehicles, but it works in real-world situations, full of unpredictable other cars, pedestrians, cyclists and stray kittens.
You see that Velodyne LIDAR atop the car? Those ran $80,000 at first for Google. Velodyne is reportedly working on one that will cost around $10,000. Still one of the best systems in use currently. But would you buy a car that cost tens of thousands of extra dollars to have a virtual driver? The average person won’t. The average car on the road these days is 11 years old. That means adoption of new technology is slower than other forms of tech.
Expect that the very first driverless cars will be bought by wealthy, early-adopters, at least on some scale. I live in Los Angeles, and every year there’s a darling car that everyone (well, everyone with high incomes and a penchant for ostentation) buys. One year it’s the Maserati Quattroporte, another it’s the Porsche Panamera or Mercedes SLS. Fisker even got some time, but they seem to have all disappeared after Fisker went belly-up.
Most people probably don’t want a big LIDAR tower on top of their cars. But those looking to be noticed will. They will draw attention, everyone will know it’s a driverless car. So some rich folks will buy them, which allows for some real-world R&D that will ultimately help improve the technology AND lower the price. You have to thank early adopters of any technology for that.
Here’s a thought, though. If the average person isn’t interested in shelling out up to double the price of a particular car for full autonomy, who might benefit from this? How about ride-share services like Uber? It would cut their operating costs by about 25% (the cut the drivers get), reduce accidents, give them leverage against cabs, and guarantee the cars are in good, working order all the time. Uber could invest in a massive fleet of these cars, and THAT would be huge for driverless cars and for regular people.
A car on demand. Someone else maintains it, if the car you order breaks down, another one shows up minutes (or seconds) later to whisk you off to your destination.