The Fuse

2016, the Year Autonomous Vehicles Took Off

by Matt Piotrowski | December 15, 2016

It’s still uncertain when autonomous vehicles will become mainstream and be used by everyday consumers, but changes in the auto industry, ride-sharing apps, tech companies, and regulation throughout 2016 laid the groundwork for enormous changes in transportation and mobility.

The year 2016 will be remembered for numerous reasons: Shocking election results, seismic referendums, a string of deadly terrorist attacks, unexpected deaths of rock stars such as David Bowie, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. But when historians look back on this pivotal year, they will also note one other big occurrence: substantial progress in the autonomous vehicle space. Before this past year, self-driving cars were seen mostly as a means of getting around in science fiction novels, but now they are discussed in almost every conversation about the future of transportation. It’s still uncertain when robot vehicles will become mainstream and be used by everyday consumers, but changes in the auto industry, ride-sharing apps, tech companies, and regulations throughout 2016 have laid the groundwork for enormous changes in mobility.

Here are some highlights in autonomy over the past year.

  • Uber’s use of autonomous cars in Pittsburgh. Ride-hailing service Uber launched a driverless pilot program in Pittsburgh this year. While only a select number of customers and journalists were able to ride along in one of Uber’s driverless Ford Fusions, the trial brought about positive publicity for autonomous cars—there were no major accidents, a key city was able to become comfortable with the new technology, and press outlets from all over the country covered the event, giving the general public an idea what the new technology offers. Other cities will follow Pittsburgh’s example, helping assuage fears over autonomy and expand the much-needed on-road testing of self-driving cars. The program also reflects how ride-sharing services will help lead the way in the transition to autonomy.
  • The U.S. government issues guidance on autonomy. There was general worry that regulators and legislators, at both the state and federal levels, would create an environment that might stifle innovation, which could ultimately challenge the path forward for self-driving cars. But that hasn’t happened so far. In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSA) issued guidance that was well received by industry. In order to help avoid a patchwork of regulations across the country, NHTSA’s policy is able to draw a line between the responsibility of the federal government and those of the states. NHTSA also says that a licensed operator does not need to be in self-driving cars once the technology is developed, and also provides non-binding safety recommendations for car manufacturers. Simply put, the policies give companies a long leash to innovate. It’s not yet clear what the incoming Trump administration has in mind regarding autonomy, but the hope is it will continue with the mostly hands-off approach.
  • Tesla announces all of its cars will include self-driving hardware. The Silicon Valley tech company is the first to take this step. Even though Tesla is including the hardware for autonomy, the software is not yet ready and has also not received regulatory approval. Still, this shows how competition among car makers is spurring a race to advance quickly in the autonomy space, as others, such as Ford and Volvo, are gearing to roll out fully self-driving vehicles by early next decade. The speed of Tesla’s progress is good news, since autonomous cars will ultimately be safer than traditional vehicles operated by humans. There are serious concerns, though, about Tesla’s plans: The transition to autonomy can’t happen too quickly or recklessly, since new technology will always have setbacks, some of which can be fatal. This summer, a driver of Model S died in an accident when the car was on Autopilot, a system that controls the vehicle without the help of a human driver. Autonomous technology needs to go forward—but with caution.
  • Michigan passes pro-autonomy law. One bold move in legislation surrounding autonomy occurred in Michigan in 2016. That should come as no surprise given that the state is home to the big three U.S. automakers. The proper regulatory environment is needed for those companies to compete with others. The Michigan law, passed by the Senate in September and recently signed by the governor, doesn’t require a person to be behind the wheel in an autonomous vehicle while it is being tested on a public road. While Michigan should be commended for showing leadership on this issue, the law does raise questions about what other states will do. Florida has a law similar to Michigan, while California and Nevada have been more restrictive. At the same time, others have no specific laws at all. NHTSA was right to issue guidance on this issue, but more federal leadership will be needed.
  • Uber’s Otto delivers beer. In 2016, the world saw the first ever delivery by autonomous truck, with a San Francisco start-up, called Otto and run by Uber, hauling more than 50,000 cans of Budweiser for 120 miles through Colorado to its destination in Fort Collins. It was a momentous occasion for a variety of reasons. First, the long-haul trip was uneventful and safe. Second, the delivery indicated that commercial trucking on interstates could be where autonomy first makes big gains, rather than with regular motorists or in urban centers. Third, with the trucking industry hauling roughly 70 percent of the country’s freight while dealing with a driver shortage, autonomous vehicles can take some pressure off the country’s truckers and help them become more safe and efficient.
  • Partnerships between tech companies and traditional automakers. The collaboration seen this past year was unprecedented and is likely to continue. Car companies have realized that they must adapt to changing consumer demands and shifts in technology. In order to survive, they are expanding their reach and expertise by becoming mobility companies rather than just auto makers. GM partnered with Lyft in order to acquire Cruise Automation, and Fiat Chrysler worked with Google to develop autonomous minivans. Toyota bought a stake in Uber, Honda has joined forces with Southeast Asia’s Grab, Volkswagen is investing in the biggest European ride-sharing service, and Ford is collaborating with a number of start-ups. These aggressive changes in strategy for traditional auto makers reflect how important new technology and autonomy will play in their futures.

Autonomy to continue to grow at fast pace, beyond 2016

When many look back for the beginnings of the transition to autonomy, the year 2016 will be seen as a critical period for many parties involved, and society in general.

Critics may argue that the self-driving car phenomenon is premature, pointing out that U.S. consumers are ambivalent about the new technology and that owning and driving a car are quintessentially American ideals. But with more choices for drivers and commuters, attitudes will eventually shift, particularly with new technology expected to ease congestion, boost efficiency, and reduce traffic accidents, which soared this year as vehicle miles traveled also increased substantially. With developments occurring faster than anticipated in the autonomous space, it’s becoming clearer that mobility will look completely different in the future than it does today. When many look back for the beginnings of the transition to autonomy, the year 2016 will be seen as a critical period for many parties involved, and society in general.