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The year in driverless cars: promise, potential, and peril

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This year, automated vehicle technology became a matter of when, not if

self-driving car
The Waymo self-driving car
Image via Waymo

In a year filled with stories about the promise and potential of driverless cars and automated vehicles, it was odd to see the year end on a sour note, as dozens of Uber test vehicles were unceremoniously trucked out of San Francisco on the back of a flatbed trailer. The ridehailing giant, puffing its chest as it announced that its driverless vehicles were going to be tested on the streets of its hometown, quickly had to eat crow, as it appeared the new cars didn’t have the correct permits (something the company still disputes is necessary).

As far as symbolism goes, when the so-called future of transportation isn’t even allowed to drive itself out of town, it might seem like the future isn’t promising. But after a year of technological, logistical, and regulatory breakthroughs—including the company’s successful trials in Pittsburgh, and the auto industry’s race to catch up—the future of driverless cars seems brighter than ever, making Uber’s San Francisco trial seem more like a stumble than a fall. And Uber is just one of many rapidly developing companies that have the potential to reshape our commutes, city planning, and the economy in far-reaching ways.

While driverless cars may be years from widespread adoption, the technology has such broad support that it’s a matter of when, not if, and that the biggest hurdle to realizing the technology’s potential may be human, rather than computer, error. Here’s a look at the big developments in driverless technology this year, and why 2016 may be remembered as a pivotal moment in future mobility.

The government got on board

It’s not everyday that the President writes an op-ed in favor of new technology. But that’s exactly what Obama did on September 19, penning an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the need for safe, reliable regulations around driverless cars. This was the PR push behind a bigger initiative from the Department of Transportation, which drafted and released a series of proposed rules, regulations, and policies meant to guide the adoption and roll-out of driverless vehicles that same week. The regulatory roadmap, another example of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s progressive views on technology and mobility, gives companies more certainty as the technology matures. Private sector efforts will bring about new innovations, but by establishing significant a framework for national safety rules and regulations, the government laid the groundwork for wider acceptance.

Ford Car Lidar Ford

Car companies see a future in selling mobility

For the companies that are building the next generation of smart, automated vehicles, technology isn’t the only big shift set to radically re-arrange the marketplace. Many experts expect that current ideas of ownership will soon seem as quaint and old-fashioned as tail fins. As a Ford executive told Curbed earlier this year, the firm wants to become both a mobility company and an automaker, a nod to the rapidly decreasing rate of car ownership among younger generations.

As auto firms invest in ridehailing companies and start their own carsharing services, the landscape continues to shift. Some firms, such as Apple and Google’s self-driving car division, which spun-off as Waymo earlier this month, see a future in developing and licensing technology, while those building the cars see ownership models evolving and changing. As it gets easier to treat mobility as an a la carte service, the shakeup in the automotive industry will continue.

Drive.AI rendering
Proposed automated vehicle safety and communication system under development by Silicon Valley startup Drive.AI

Safety becomes a key part of the automated vehicle sales pitch ...

Setting aside Uber’s embarrassing San Francisco fiasco for a moment, self-driving cars are increasingly seen as a way to make our roadways safer and more pedestrian-friendly. The USDOT made safety a key part of its pitch for proposed automated vehicle regulations, arguing that better technology and design can prevent the epidemic of traffic deaths on our streets. Safety and pedestrian communication are both focuses of current technological development, and Uber’s Pittsburgh trials appear to have a great safety record. If done well, a system with fewer human drivers should mean safer rides for everybody.

Tesla Model S
Tesla Model S

... Even as crashes raised safety questions

Automated vehicles didn’t have a spotless safety record this year, as a handful of high-profile crashes, including a fatal Tesla accident involving the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system. While better guidance systems and guarantees are a necessity before the technology rolls out in large numbers, many of the incidents, including an incident where a Google car hit a bus, suggest that human error played a larger role than software shortfalls.

Cities see automated vehicles as the future of urban transportation

Planners and transportation experts increasingly see the use of automated cars as a key player in the commute of the future, which will have a huge impact on urban planning. Los Angeles has already mapped out such a vision as part of its Urban Mobility in the Digital Age plan, a look at how personalized, smart technology can create a safer, cleaner urban transportation system. Subsidizing automated vehicles and/or ridehailing services—which is already being tested in some small cities, such as Altamonte Springs, Florida—allows municipalities to extend transportation services quickly without spending money on costly infrastructure.

Many cities are also planning to use automated vehicles as a key solution to the first mile/last mile problem, and a big part of a multimodal transportation system. These new public/private partnerships are already happening—another report by the New York-based TransitCenter outlines the ways rapidly changing tech is creating more cost-efficient transportation—and are poised to reinvent how we move about our cities.

Beverly Hills Autonomous Transport
Still from the Beverly Hills: Driven by Innovation video, which details the California city's plan to develop a driverless transport system
City of Beverly Hills

Cars aren’t the only vehicles where the driver is being replaced

A publicity stunt earlier this year featuring an automated truck delivering beer is perhaps the biggest hint of things to come. The trucking and logistics industry are poised for an incredible shakeup, as automated trucking systems, such as Otto, which was purchased by Uber earlier this year, embrace technology to speed up delivery. Some even predict that automated trucking will hit the road first, as the potential to save money in the multibillion-dollar industry will push development and adoption forward (and potentially lead to significant job loss for truck drivers).

Buses are also welcoming the impact of automated technology, which has the potential to turn the experience of waiting on slow, standardized routes into a more personalized, speedy transportation service. Trials in Helsinki and Amsterdam are starting to show the promise of fast, flexible, and automated bus service, and U.S. firm Local Motors has started manufacturing 3D-printed, self-driving buses called Olli at two domestic factories.

Our roads and neighborhoods are already changing to welcome AVs

Driverless cars are still a long way from rolling out in any meaningful numbers, but that hasn’t stopped architects, planners, and city officials from imagining how this technology will reshape the look of our cities. From impacting density and sprawl to changing the way our roads and even our highways operate, automated vehicles may provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reclaim parking lots and roadways and develop more walkable, pedestrian-friendly cities. Smart planners are already thinking ahead about how smarter cars may actually lead to a new type of automated urbanism that can help develop human-scale cities.