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When Will You be Riding in a Self-Driving Car?

Jerry Edgerton / March 20th, 2017

You can now hail an Uber car in downtown Pittsburgh that drives itself. Tesla says it is improving its autopilot system. And major automakers say they plan to produce a self-driving car within five years. But safety concerns and cautious regulators may slow down that progress.

Safety alarms were raised last May by the death of a Tesla owner whose car was operating on autopilot. But now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after a lengthy investigation, says that the system did not malfunction and cause the accident. But the federal officials added that systems like Tesla’s could be relied upon to react safely in only certain highway situations.

Those limitations and fears among the public about autonomous cars may keep them from becoming widespread in the next few years. According to a survey last year by AAA, 75% of respondents said they felt afraid to ride in a self-driving car.

Nonetheless, automakers’ plans are moving ahead. BMW has announced a partnership with tech giant Intel and Mobileye—a maker of collision avoidance systems—that it says will produce a fully-automated car by 2021. BMW thus strengthens its entry in the race involving other automakers and major tech companies to put safe self-driving cars on the roads of the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Is BMW’s 2021 goal a realistic target? “That target is realistic from a technology standpoint, meaning it’s possible that BMW will offer a fully autonomous car by 2021,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book based in Irvine, Calif. “Whether or not all the regulations are in place for such a car to operate without limitation on public roads remains to be seen.”

The safety record in the next few years as testing of autonomous cars continues, will likely be crucial. “This one Tesla fatality, by itself, won’t slow the transition to autonomous vehicles,” says Kelley Blue Book’s Brauer. “However, if more fatalities occur, it could slow the public’s acceptance of self-driving tech.”

Brauer adds that, on the other hand, a clean safety record in coming years could lead to adoption of self-driving cars faster than now believed.

As BMW moves full speed ahead, how are other contenders placed in the race to put self-driving cars on the road?

  • Google has been working on self-driving technology longer than competitors and is aiming for completely autonomous vehicles that do not need driver intervention at all. Google has partnered with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to build 100 self-driving minivans and says it is open to other partnerships as well.
  • Audi has been working with a group that also includes Mobileye, which is also one of BMW’s collaborators. Other Audi partners include auto parts supplier Delphi and Nvidia, a computer graphics specialist.
  • Both Ford and General Motors have invested in tech companies that can help them work toward autonomous cars. Ford invested $182 million in software company Pivotal. GM acquired Cruise Automation for an estimated $1 billion to work on a “highway autopilot” system.

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