Why self-driving cars won't be a mass reality anytime soon

Commentary: As Google reveals its latest self-driving car, a bold future seems to have arrived. But we've been down this disappointing road before.

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
Danny Sullivan
4 min read

Google's latest self-driving prototype. Google

Driverless cars are coming. On Tuesday, Google unveiled its latest prototype -- one so amazing it lacks manual controls.

But after decades of waiting for smarter cars for the masses, will they really arrive?

Believe me, I love the promise. With a teenager about to learn to drive and another only three years away, this parent wants smart, driverless cars for the general public now. Plus, what adult wouldn't love a car that's always your "designated driver" to get you home safely after drinking at a dinner or concert?

I've even been in one of Google's cars a few years ago and was amazed as it zipped me around a test track at high speed. I didn't think twice about my kids climbing in and going for a spin without me, since it felt so safe.

But much as I'm a fan of the cars and astounded by the technology, I can't help but feel that when 2020 comes around -- despite what Google, Nissan and GM predict -- such cars still be in limited use, in limited areas, in limited cases.

That's largely because I keep thinking back to a Los Angeles Times article that I found so gripping nearly 25 years ago. When it came out in March 1991, "A Smart Way to Unclog Roadways" documented a less-ambitious future than the fully autonomous cars we're being promised today.

Planners then were hoping that our cars and roadways would both get smart, so that once a car entered a freeway, it would go into auto-mode. It would then "platoon" in a link-up with other cars, effectively creating a train.

Hook your car into a platoon of self-driving cars, then use your new free time to sip your coffee, listen to music, have a snack, make a call, or read a book.
Hooking your car into a platoon would theoretically free you up to read or make. Sartre

It sounds like a great idea, but the idea has yet to arrive. In fact, despite all this time, platooning is still in the testing stage and is considered future tech. To be fair, when the LA Times article was written, platooning was seen as something that might take up to 50 years to achieve. So we've got about another 25 years to go, I suppose.

But then again, that same article made mention of predictions from the 1939 World's Fair, where GM's Futurama exhibit anticipated automated highways with "radio-control" keeping cars a safe distance from each other. Wired offers a retrospective on that, and Wikipedia has an entry as well.

Below, a video from the time talks about how motorways of 1960 might work. (Jump to 14 minutes, 28 seconds for the key part.)

So 1939 promised us automated highways by 1960 that never materialized. In 1991, I was dazzled by the article that suggested the future was really about to arrive.

Yet here I am living in that "future" and still finding myself driving my car manually, on crowded freeways, with another promise that automation is just around the corner to make it all better.

Certainly some things promised in terms of car tech have arrived. This part of the 1991 LA Times article makes me smile:

"For example, if a driver wanted to get from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, the usual route would be the Santa Monica Freeway, or Interstate 10. But what if an accident near the La Brea exit occurred while the driver was just a few miles from the scene? Before he could get caught in the jam, his car would be told of the incident by the traffic command central and would automatically exit the freeway, finding the least congested alternative route based on the calculations performed by its computerized mapping system for both the freeway as well as adjacent major streets."

My GPS works exactly like this today, and it can be a huge time saver. But ultimately, it's still me behind the wheel, doing the driving.

Part of me feels that even if our cars are getting smarter, the roads they drive on still seem pretty dumb, which means the cars still must drop into a lowest-common denominator mode.

Part of me also feels like self-driving car engineers are too ambitious. While Google's recently posted of big progress in city driving situations, it ultimately can only have its cars work where it has created detailed maps -- effectively tracks -- for the cars to follow.

How about focusing on just getting all the legal and technological challenges tackled so these cars work on freeways, even if only in platooning mode? I'd be happy with that start, if it meant I'd get a self-driving car that I can actually use sooner.

When the next decade arrives, will it be commonplace that cars are just driving us around? I don't think so. One recent study suggests 2035 as a more reasonable date, with nearly all cars being autonomous by 2050.

Still, I want to be optimistic. I'm certainly glad that so much progress has been made with autonomous vehicles recently. I hope the promises being made indeed come true.

I'm still holding out hope that the jetpacks we were promised will materialize too.