Self-Driving Cars Are Never Going to Happen

Lucid Air

After seeing the Lucid Air—Tesla’s most formidable competition to date—at the 2017 New York International Auto Show, it’s clear that electrification is the future of transportation. Not only do electric cars deliver exceptionally low running costs and valuable peace of mind to more environmentally conscious drivers, but more and more examples are turning in performance benchmarks normally reserved for exotic hypercars.

Alongside expanding driving ranges and shrinking 0-60 times, electric cars companies like Tesla and Lucid tend to market their cars with one very specific bit of technology: autonomous driving. The ability to sit back and let the car do the driving appears particularly appealing to shoppers interested in electric cars. After attending the New York Auto Show, however, it seems clear to me that self-driving cars are never going to happen.

When showcasing the Lucid Air in New York, company CTO Peter Rawlinson was sure to point out the incorporation of myriad cameras, radar, and LIDAR systems allowing the car to travel via full Level 5 automation. Essentially, the Lucid Air should be able to drive its owner around with no required input from the driver. Feel free to kick back and throw on some Netflix; the car will do the driving.

The caveat, of course, was that this capability would not be unlocked until the necessary software and legislative hurdles had been cleared.

We can give Lucid a pass on the software part. Engineers for every major automaker (and many parts suppliers) are currently working on developing this, and no matter how far-fetched it may seem, we can safely assume that someday autonomous driving software will be perfected and implemented in mass-market cars. Skeptical? Well, take a good look at the phone on which you’re most likely reading this, and consider how far-fetched that technology seemed 15 years ago.

Legislation, on the other hand… well, I simply can’t brush off that point. To the best of my knowledge (and granted, I’m not exactly a legislative historian), the United States has no relevant experience in this sort of legislation. When companies like Waymo (Google’s self-driving car arm) and until recently, Uber, test self-driving cars, at least one engineer is sitting up front, ready to take over when necessary. With the exception of some airport shuttles, we don’t allow autonomous trains to operate without an engineer on hand. Airplanes can be fitted with auto take-off, auto landing, and autopilot, but you can’t send a plane up without someone at the controls. The closest we have to autonomy in the transport world is a Roomba—and if we’re being honest, those are really suitable only for cats.

Considering Amtrak runs on a track, rather than barreling unrestricted down I-95, if Congress can’t (or won’t) pass legislation permitting self-driving trains, the odds are it won’t agree on regulations allowing self-driving cars either.

I have high hopes for Lucid Motors. It’s a company led by a former Jaguar engineer. The Air is stunningly beautiful and manages to defy the spatial expectations of a typical sedan. It can travel at speeds up to 217 miles per hour. Perhaps most encouraging, with Tesla taking the brunt of the abuse as the first major electric carmaker to crash through the proverbial wall, once it secures necessary funding, Lucid should have a much less cluttered path toward producing and selling cars. Whether or not those cars will drive themselves, however, is another question altogether.

Do you think we will ever see fully autonomous cars?

-Matt Smith

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