The competition is fierce, the key players are billionaires, but the path—and even the destination—remains uncertain.
The race to bring driverless cars to the masses is only just beginning, but already it is a fight for the ages. The competition is fierce, secretive, and elite. It pits Apple against Google against Tesla against Uber: all titans of Silicon Valley, in many ways as enigmatic as they are revered.
As these technology giants zero in on the car industry, global automakers are being forced to dramatically rethink what it means to build a vehicle for the first time in a century. Aspects of this race evoke several pivotal moments in technological history: the construction of railroads, the dawn of electric light, the birth of the automobile, the beginning of aviation. There’s no precedent for what engineers are trying to build now, and no single blueprint for how to build it.
Self-driving cars promise to create a new kind of leisure, offering passengers additional time for reading books, writing email, knitting, practicing an instrument, cracking open a beer, taking a catnap, and any number of other diversions. People who are unable to drive themselves could experience a new kind of independence. And self-driving cars could re-contextualize land-use on massive scales. In this imagined mobility utopia, drone trucks would haul packages across the country and no human would have to circle a city block in search of a parking spot.
If self-driving vehicles deliver on their promises, they will save millions of lives over the course of a few decades, destroy and create entire industries, and fundamentally change the human relationship with space and time. All of which is why some of the planet’s most valuable companies are pouring billions of dollars into the effort to build driverless cars.
“This is an arms race,” said Larry Burns, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and a former GM executive who also serves as an adviser to Google. “You’re going to see a new age for the automobile.”
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