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The self-driving car has traveled a long and lonely road to get here. Introduced to the American public by General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Depression-era dream of automated highways has perpetually lagged behind the present in drivers’ rear-view mirrors.
But thanks largely to Google, the future once again appears to be gaining on us. A panel of Silicon Valley technology leaders recently polled by The Atlantic expects the first fully autonomous models to roll into our driveways in 2022.
But don’t count on it. The autonomous car will not be nearly as autonomous as its champions would have you believe.
Of course, self-driving cars will get smarter as computing power increases. But they will quickly encounter another real-world complication: other breeds of self-driving cars. In September, California joined Nevada in granting autonomous licenses, and within hours Audi and Mercedes-Benz squeezed ahead of Google in securing permits.
There were merely the first in line. General Motors’ Cadillac division announced back in August it would offer limited autonomy by 2017, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled the Model D, an electric sedan with its own semi-autonomous features.
As a result, by the time Google’s cars are ready for sale, they will have to share the roads with a slew of models produced by dozens of automakers, each with its own scheme for avoiding collisions. With traditional rules of the road shoved aside by overly cautious computers, one result might be epic gridlock, as they slow to a crawl attempting to work it out.
Consider buses. They are experiencing a renaissance as cities around the world, from Bogota to Guangzhou to Jakarta, have shown how bus rapid transit can be a faster, cheaper, more flexible and energy efficient way to move large numbers of commuters than either cars or trains. Now what if those buses – like the private automobile “platoons” envisioned by the auto industry – could travel safely only feet apart at top speeds?