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The good, the bad, and the ugly of self-driving cars in 2018

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From Uber’s fatal crash to Waymo’s driverless taxies to verrrrrrry slow buses—AVs still have a long way to go

Waymo logged 8 million miles on public streets in 2018, far more than any of its competitors.
Waymo

Amidst stunning breakthroughs and tragic failures, for self-driving vehicles, 2018 was the year of yes, but...

Yes, self-driving cars can save lives—but only if they’re programmed with all users of the street in mind.

Yes, self-driving cars can reduce emissions—but only if they’re also electric.

Yes, self-driving cars can fix congestion—but only if they’re shared.

As autonomous vehicles (or AVs) moved from a startup prototype to an everyday reality, the questions raised by the industry’s triumphs—and several grave missteps—drove a new conversation about where cities want this technology to go.

In 2018, some cities remained bullish on driverless tech. Some cities were no longer as welcoming. Here’s a recap.

Uber

Uber’s swift downfall

The fatal crash that killed Elaine Herzberg in March had everyone pointing fingers—at the lack of transparency around autonomous vehicle testing, at Arizona’s practically nonexistent state regulations, and at Tempe’s unfriendly pedestrian infrastructure.

In the end, though, it was Uber that was to blame—including the shortcuts taken in the company’s haste to win the self-driving war. In addition to removing the existing safety technology onboard, Uber had blunted the software’s ability to stop the car when it spotted an object in the road. Later, it was revealed that the company had recently changed their policy from requiring two human drivers in the car to only requiring one. Shortly afterwards, the safety driver was found to be streaming a show at the time of impact.

Uber’s incoming CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tried to refocus the company’s efforts around a new safety campaign. But the damage was done. Uber’s driverless programs were shuttered in Arizona and Pittsburgh, and its permit left to expire in California. Around the same time, Uber settled a major lawsuit with Waymo, which had accused Uber of stealing its proprietary technology. It seemed as if the company couldn’t possibly be redeemed—yet in the last weeks of 2018, Pittsburgh allowed Uber back on its roads.

Waymo remains the leader

In July, Waymo announced it had hit a major milestone: Its vehicles had driven 8 million autonomous miles on public roads. But that wasn’t the biggest part of the announcement. The company had not only doubled its autonomous miles driven since the start of 2017, it had drove one million of those miles in a single month.

With more on-road experience than any other competitor, Waymo used its authority to expand its services to real people, with a focus on solving transportation problems for people with disabilities, transit employees, and families.

After signing on 400 people to its Early Rider program in 2017, Waymo launched a program this year to help connect Phoenix-area transportation agency workers to transit. Next up: Waymo One, the fully autonomous commercial taxi service (with humans in the driver seats for now), and the deployment of 20,000 all-electric Jaguar I-PACE vehicles.

Navya

Slow buses win the race

The AVs that made the biggest splash in 2018 were the least flashy of the bunch. In cities across the country, driverless shuttles popped up on college campuses or along tourist corridors, making slow but important trips at around 20 mph. From Las Vegas to Detroit to Austin, cities got to test the waters of autonomy in a low-risk, high-reward way.

Although these shuttles might feel more theme-park ride than transit solution, these slow-motion minibuses are performing an important task by introducing people to the idea of driverless tech. Some of them are being deployed to test how investments in bigger transit projects down the road might perform. And, hey, maybe the novelty of riding them even two or three blocks got at least a few people out of their cars.

AVs will fail without better streets

2018 was the year that transportation journalists were finally granted a chance to go behind the AV curtain (or, more accurately, into the warehouse). Self-driving companies, once notoriously secretive, gave more information, more rides, and more access in an effort to push forth glowing visions of a utopian AV future.

The praise was tempered by one powerful critique that cut through the hype. In February, Allison Arieff made waves with her op-ed for the New York Times, “Automated Vehicles Can’t Save Cities,” which highlighted the fact that in order to arrest the most dystopian effects of AVs, streets need to be redesigned first. The interactive feature, with delightful illustrations by Olalekan Jeyifous, provided a data-driven, graphical explainer that helped the general public understand what is at stake. The story became even more relevant amidst the scooter craze.

Volvo invented the future we don’t want

In the category of things that autonomous vehicles absolutely should not do, Volvo debuted its 360c, essentially a private, autonomous sleeping cabin for wealthy car-owners. Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson cautioned against exactly this phenomenon: “If you think of driverless cars as nothing more than cars without drivers, you’re not seeing the full picture. These will be rooms with wheels.”

Aside from the sheer ridiculousness of the concept, it seemed particularly shameful that Volvo’s design team, which hails from a country that has worked so hard to reduce the numbers of vehicles in cities, fund rail transit, and eliminate traffic deaths, were now trying to sell Americans on the idea of more highways, more driving, and more cars.

Regulations remain loose

Even though Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had promised a year ago to provide more detailed AV framework, for most of 2018, federal policy stayed ambiguous as ever. Chao did, however, make it clear that the Trump administration wanted to take a hands-off approach and let the market decide the winners.

In October, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a plan to rewrite safety rules that would allow for major changes in the way cars are manufactured. This would open the door for self-driving vehicles to be made without steering wheels, for example. However, a bill regulating AVs stalled in Congress, to be reintroduced next year.

But when it comes to getting these vehicles on the road, that's still up to the states. California made waves when the state announced it would let fully autonomous vehicles test without humans behind the wheel in March, yet only one company applied. That company was later confirmed to be—surprise!—Waymo.