2018 could be a pivotal year for driverless cars

Ride inside Uber's driverless test vehicles
Posted at 3:20 PM, Jan 01, 2018

This year could be a pivotal one for driverless vehicles as manufacturers and ride-share platforms race to bring consumers the first 100 percent autonomous vehicle.

Companies like Tesla, GM, Ford, Google/Waymo, Lyft and Uber are just some of the big names vying to reach the finish line first. Uber agreed to give us a ride in their test vehicles that have already hit the streets in Pittsburgh.  

The company has about 200 driverless vehicles between its Pennsylvania and Arizona driverless hubs, and they’re already picking up riders with the vehicles. Brian Zajac, Uber’s head of hardware engineering in their Advanced Technologies Group, said he expects 2018 to be critical.

"Now it’s coming together," he said. "We have a vision for what this product will look like. We are building confidence in this technology, and we are preparing to scale it and bring it into the mainstream public on a larger scale." 

The cars are programmed with a 3D map of Pittsburgh and use a combination of light radar—“Lidar,” it’s called—and several roof-mounted cameras to navigate obstacles.

But if you’re one of the few in those cities who gets an autonomous vehicle on your next Uber ride, you’ll still notice a driver in the front seat--at least for now. Engineer Jeff Barnes is one of them.

Since the vehicles are still in a testing phase, there are times where Barnes still has to take control.

On our first ride of the day, there were several hiccups ranging from jerky, sudden stops to acceleration issues. A few times our vehicle would sit in the middle of an empty roadway, and judging by the honks behind us, traditional drivers behind us were a bit agitated.

“This is a test release so it’s going to do things that aren’t kosher,” Barnes said as he takes control of the vehicle.

But this vehicle seemed to be having more hiccups than normal test cars do. After a quick switch to a second vehicle it was a vastly different experience. Barnes only had to take the wheel on his own a handful of times.

Zajac said the biggest challenge for driverless vehicle progress right now is the software.

"You and I, when we drive we use non-verbal communication: eye contact with drivers, hand signals, things like that," Zajac said. "Teaching a car an algorithm to understand what that means and interact with the public is really tricky. That’s still something we are working on right now, as well as predicting a lot of behaviors from unpredictable drivers, when people are going to disobey traffic laws and wander out of their lane or run a red light." 

Regardless of the issues we experienced in our test ride, Uber said they’re hoping this will be the year they can roll out full autonomous vehicles, i.e. no more backup drivers in the front seat. Their ultimate goal is for Uber’s entire fleet to be 100 percent driverless.

They’re already planning to scale the operation for mass production and have partnered with Volvo for “tens of thousands” of vehicles to be produced with driverless technology incorporated from the ground up. Currently, Uber’s vehicles are retro-fitted Volvo’s. 

But in terms of exactly when in 2018 we might see them roll out the fully autonomous vehicle—with no backup driver—Zajac wouldn’t give details,. He only said that he’s excited for the year ahead…and for the increasing competition to finish first.

"It’s something that pumps me up," he said. "It’s the reason I’m excited to come to work every day. It’s knowing we are in this really competitive environment, and we are all trying to build the best tech possible to solve this really hard technical problem."

However, if you’re hoping this could be the year of the fully driverless car taking over the roads, Eric Totaro, an automotive analyst at Euromonitor who studies the emerging driverless industry, said don’t hold your breath.

"I think we are really looking at his being a decades long process,” Totaro said. "It’s going to be a slow and incremental process before the average everyday consumer is experiencing full autonomous technology."