Finger pressing a push button to start a self-driving car. Composite image between a hand photography and a 3D background.

How close are we to autonomous cars in Denver south and beyond?

 

In Denver south, the Denver South Economic Development Partnership (DSEPD) was selected to participate in the Transportation for America (T4America) Smart Cities Collaborative. Autonomous cars are one of the many innovative topics T4America has on their radar.

And last year, Colorado saw one of its first fully autonomous vehicles put to use when CDOT and several partners unveiled the Autonomous Impact Protection Vehicle (AIPV), which aids road maintenance workers in Colorado.

With so much activity just in the Denver area, it feels like autonomous cars are just on the horizon. But is that really the case? Are we truly on the verge of an automotive revolution?

Let’s take a look at some of the challenges, opportunities and realities of autonomous vehicles (AVs), and see if we can figure just how close we are to driverless cars on the streets of Denver and beyond.

The promise of AVs

Autonomous cars and other vehicles are alluring for good reason: they have the potential to boost the economy, vastly improve safety and help to enable mobility for swelling populations across the country. Everyone from farmers to police officers to people simply going to work stand to benefit from AVs.

According to a recent study, AVs could power a $7 trillion market (yes, that’s trillion with a “t”) by 2050. That’s a lot of jobs, new cottage industries and money pumping back into the economy.

In terms of safety, AVs might be able to positively impact everything from climate change to commuter stress and crash frequency and severity. Since it’s often cited that humans contribute to 90 percent of automobile crashes, optimists believe AVs could reduce car accidents by that same number.

For commuters and local policy makers, the promise of AVs is staggering. Many experts predict that AV technology will allow fleets of vehicles to move closely together at high rates of speed — referred to as “platooning” — which could increase the throughput of a given roadway by up to 40 percent without making massive investments in new infrastructure.

The obstacles to AVs

The potential of autonomous cars has led to accelerated interest and investment in the space, adding up to an estimated $80 billion invested so far, according to Brookings.

So, we should all be cruising along with our hands and minds free to focus on other tasks, like safely texting in the car for once — right?

Trigger the braking algorithm right there.

There are still massive obstacles to overcome before AVs can take over the roads. To list just a few:

Lack of consensus: AVs are still in the wild west. You’ve been hearing about Google’s self-driving car project for years now, but recently players like Apple and Alibaba have jumped into the mix, not to mention traditional manufacturers like Ford or new players like Tesla. The technology powering all of these might be similar, but for AVs to really work they’ll need to talk to each other, and so far, there are no clear or well-defined guidelines or defined underlying platforms that can provide interoperability. Plus, there are different levels of autonomy in a car. Self-parking has been around for a while now, but does that really mean it’s an AV? TBD on how everyone comes to agree on these issues, including regulators.

Current vehicles on the road: There are over 260 million registered vehicles on the road in the U.S. alone, according to Statista. Even if you’ve got a top of the line AV, today’s manually-driven cars aren’t going anywhere for a long, long time. Especially when you consider the improvement in car-manufacturing technology in the last 10 to 20 years, which means cars can now easily hit 200,000-plus miles and still be perfectly safe and reliable.

Hardware and software failures: The unfortunate recent story of a women being struck and killed by an AV reminds us that while AVs will be better drivers than humans, they can still mess up. You know when your phone just randomly restarts? Now consider if that were to happen to your car while you’re on the highway. This recent accident has slowed testing and could hamper the acceleration of autonomous cars being integrated onto roadways.

So when will we have AVs?

The simple answer is: We already have them, but getting to a time where AVs are ubiquitous will likely take decades.

The more complex answer is that it will be an extremely gradual process. In reality, we already have vehicles with autonomous features on the road today. Tesla has an Autopilot feature which can handle most scenarios on the road, but still requires the driver to pay attention and intervene when necessary.

This highlights the fact that AVs have different levels of autonomy, ranging from 0 to 5. Cars that land in level 3 begin to resemble what we really expect of AVs: cars that can maneuver and handle nearly any road scenario without the need for human intervention.

In the Denver region, there already cars on the road that can hit level 2, and probably even some 3s out there (although some autonomous functions can’t be fully used yet due to regulations).

Additionally, analysts think that by 2025 there could be as many as 8 million cars sold with level 3 autonomy. However, when you add it up, that only represents a fraction of yearly national car sales — about 8 percent.

In the next five to 10 years it’s very likely that we’ll start seeing AVs in the form of shuttles, short-trip ride hailing services and vehicles with features that allow drivers to mostly let the car manage things, even here in Denver south. But it will be a long time before the roads are filled with AVs and their big potential comes to fruition.

As with any disruptive and new technology, the future is hard to read, but we are at least many years from a fully AV world, and more than likely a couple of decades.

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