A few years ago, many industry pundits were predicting that we could expect fully autonomous cars to be cruising the streets by 2020. As we grew closer to 2020, however, the little rascals started to pull back, pushing the date of widespread deployment further and further into the future.
Autonomous Ford Fusion at ESC Silicon Valley 2019 (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: Max Maxfield)
In August of this year, I was presenting a couple of papers at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in Silicon Valley. As part of this, I got to ride in an autonomous Ford Fusion. On the one hand, it has to be acknowledged that this was an interesting experience. On the other hand, there was someone sitting in the driver’s seat, “Just in case.” Also, the ride was painfully slow. One of the keynote presentations at the conference was given by the guy who headed Google’s self-driving car project. This project has now been spun off as a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) called Waymo, which stands for a new way forward in mobility. Sad to relate, I can’t recall the guy’s name, but he gave a really interesting talk, including photos from the first DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004. A lot of these photos showed vehicles upside down in ditches or sinking in ponds. The prospect of a fully autonomous car seemed a long way away back then. Now, only 15 years later, the first limited-scale real-world deployments have come to pass. For example, my chum Charles Pfeil just sent me a link to an article titled Waymo’s Driverless Car: Ghost-Riding in the Back Seat. As we see in this video — which was posted only yesterday as I pen these words — Andy Hawkins from The Verge got to ride in one of Waymo’s fully driverless vehicles, which are providing passenger trips in the suburbs outside Phoenix, Arizona.  
Now, Phoenix is a great area for autonomous cars, as compared to other locations that are inundated with problematic environmental conditions like rain, fog, ice, and snow. Restricting autonomous cars to a relatively small, well-defined area that typically enjoys good weather obviously makes things much simpler for the cars. “Still and all,” as they say in Ireland, this really is a giant leap forward. Personally, I now think we can expect widespread deployment of fully autonomous cars by about 2030. Do you agree with this assessment, or do you think I’m being overly optimistic?