AVs are not yet ready to operate entirely without human supervision, but have made rapid progress in recent years, according to Tom Standage, Deputy Editor and Head of Digital Strategy at The Economist, and author of a special report: Reinventing Wheels.
Tech giants (notably Google's sister company Waymo), startups, carmakers and academic researchers are all working on AVs or developing related technology, including laser scanning, computer vision and machine learning. Waymo expects to launch a driverless "robotaxi" service this year, serving a limited part of the city of Phoenix, Arizona; GM, America's biggest carmaker, hopes to follow suit next year.
Because AVs sit at the intersection of the technology and automotive industries, a furious battle is under way to dominate this emerging industry. The result has been a flurry of deals and alliances between carmakers, software and hardware companies and ride-hailing firms. The report predicts that at least initially, and possibly even in the long term, a large proportion of self-driving cars will be taxis of some sort. The future will be about selling rides, not cars.
Reinventing Wheels examines four main themes:
■ Technology: AV technology is making rapid progress but still needs further work for a wide rollout. A fully autonomous car needs to master three tasks: perceiving its environment, predicting the actions of those around it and responding accordingly. The first two of these tasks pose the greatest technical challenges.
■ Impact on industry: carmakers, tech companies and ride-hailing firms are all competing and often co-operating in this new field. AVs could undermine the case for car ownership, but there is a big opportunity for carmakers to reinvent themselves as mobility providers, selling miles rather than metal boxes.
■ Urban planning: AVs present an opportunity to rethink cities. They could reduce traffic and reduce transport costs. But whether they increase urban density or encourage sprawl will depend on planners' and policymakers' choices.
■ Society: AVs could greatly reduce crashes, emissions and congestion, but could also have unintended consequences. By recording riders' every move, they raise privacy concerns. And uneven provision could cause new forms of segregation.
A century ago the advent of the car brought more personal autonomy, freedom of choice and mobility, but at the cost of pollution, congestion and road deaths. Autonomous vehicles will prove similarly revolutionary. AVs offer policymakers an extraordinarily flexible tool with which to shape urban and transport environments — but that also means that they offer authoritarian governments a powerful means of social control. Whether they are a success will depend on whether policymakers can learn the lessons of the horseless carriage and apply them to the driverless car.