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Fully Autonomous Vehicles Are a Ways Off, Robots Not So Much

Experts from the world of autonomous vehicles weighed in on when we might see the personal self-driving car appear at our doorsteps, and some of the other use cases on the more immediate horizon.

The interior of the Mercedes Benz autonomous concept car.
The interior of the Mercedes-Benz autonomous concept car at the 86th International Geneva Motor Show in Palexpo, Geneva.
Shutterstock/VanderWolf Images
The personal self-driving car is still probably several decades away, even though the autonomous vehicle space continues to move forward with large advancements, experts speculate.

“I think the classic question everyone asks is, ‘When?’” remarked Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at Zoox, an autonomous vehicle technology company developing AVs for ride-hailing use cases in urban environments.

Stepping into a quiet, stealthy robot car has been seen as the futuristic lodestar for where mobility is invariably headed, attracting no shortage of chatter, development and investment. However, observers of autonomous technology say this level of advanced driving in complex urban settings will require epic levels of computing and other developments before it will be scalable.

“The actual scale, when you get to walk out of your house and use the app to bring an autonomous vehicle to your door for that ride, is still probably 20 or 30 years away for the full global scale,” said Rosekind in comments March 23 during a panel to discuss the future of AVs at the NVIDIA virtual conference.

Where AV use cases are moving forward at a brisk pace are in areas like low-speed shared shuttles that follow a set route, or on-demand delivery services, as well as trucking.

“We can’t keep thinking there’s one model here. It’s actually another part of the excitement, looking at a range of things,” said Rosekind.

Norm Marks, global head of automotive enterprise at NVIDIA, echoed this point as he called attention to pilot projects across the range of autonomy.

“Look at how many test pilots are already underway. Whether it’s robo-taxis, whether it’s low-speed passenger shuttles, ride-hailing. We’re seeing things in controlled environments around ports and mines. And so, I think we undershoot sometimes the number of things that are already happening today,” said Marks.

When it comes to business cases for AVs, trucking could be the future, said Ashok Divakaran, connected and autonomous vehicles leader at Deloitte.

“I think the growth of trucking is going to go a long way towards helping the rest of the industry make strides forward,” said Divakaran in some of his comments on the panel.

And when AVs do become more widespread as a means of mobility for a wider set of users, watch for them to disrupt the world of car ownership, as consumers drift away from personal car-ownership to a shared and subscription model, said Mamatha Chamarthi, global head of software business and product management for the Americas and Asia at Stellantis, an international maker of auto technology.

“In the shared mobility people have different kinds of services: ride-hailing, ride-sharing, mobility as a service where I can rent a car for just a couple of hours,” said Chamarthi, adding, this feature coupled with autonomy leads to a whole new rider experience.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.