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Your Top Questions About Autonomous Vehicles and the Future, Answered

February 2, 2021

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How will autonomous driving technology shape how we live and move? What are the potential future benefits? We’ve compiled the answers to the top questions you have about what the future holds for autonomous vehicles and technology. 

When did the first autonomous vehicle come out? 

Google CEO Eric Schmidt outlined his vision for fully autonomous driving technology at a conference in San Francisco in 2010 where he asserted “your car should drive itself.” Five years later, in 2015 in Austin, Texas, a man named Steve Mahan, who is blind, was the world’s first passenger in a car driven fully autonomously on public roads. 

The car was called the Firefly, and was developed by the Google Self-Driving Car Project. It had a top speed of 25 mph, no steering wheel, no pedals, and no trained vehicle operator. The event was a watershed moment for autonomous driving technology. While there were many attempts at creating autonomous vehicles throughout the 20th century, these cars either did not have passengers, were not driving on public roads, or did not have technology that assumed every function of driving.

The Google Self-Driving Car Project later spun off as a separate Alphabet company called Waymo, which stands for a new way forward in mobility.

In 2020, Waymo became the first company to bring a fully autonomous ride-hailing service, called Waymo One, to the public in Metro Phoenix. These vehicles operate without a trained vehicle operator in the front seat. For years prior to that launch, Waymo has provided rides to members of the public through its Early Rider Program in Metro Phoenix. 

Waymo’s fully autonomous driving technology is different from technology in cars with some driver-assist features, such as lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control, because it can handle all aspects of the everyday task of driving. Watch a video of the first fully autonomous vehicle ride on public roads.

How will autonomous vehicles impact the future? 

In looking at what the future holds for autonomous vehicles, safety, mobility, and convenience are several of the biggest promises. Drunk driving is the leading factor in fatal crashes on public roads. In contrast, autonomous driving technology does not drive drunk. It can be designed to be a safe, attentive driver. 

For example, Waymo’s autonomous driving technology is designed to be constantly vigilant, obey speed limits, and anticipate what other road users might do next before making safe driving decisions. This holds promise for everyone on the road in the future, including pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users who are at greater risk from distracted and reckless drivers.         

How will autonomous vehicles change how we get around?

In addition to safety, autonomous driving technology could offer many people new mobility options in the future. For example, it could offer people who are blind the freedom to move around independently without relying on other people for rides. It could also help older people stay connected to and active in their communities after they can no longer safely drive.

Autonomous driving technology has the potential to improve safety, and deliver goods faster and more efficiently with last mile delivery, transforming how goods are shipped. 

Finally, autonomous driving technology could help reduce stress by not only improving safety, but also by letting passengers focus on other things while they get to where they’re going.

Are autonomous vehicles the wave of the future?

There is a strong argument that autonomous vehicles are the wave of the future because of their potential to save lives, improve independence, and create new mobility options. They are the latest iteration in a long line of car safety technologies. It’s important to remember that people once asked whether seatbelts were the wave of the future. Car safety innovations like seatbelts, airbags, and backup cameras were all new at one time and later became widely adopted because they save lives. 

When we ask if autonomous vehicles are the future, it is very important to remember that many types of automation were initially regarded as future technologies but eventually became mainstream. A few examples include elevators, which used to require human operators, modern train safety technology, and modern airplane safety technology.

Are autonomous vehicles essential to the future? 

Leading organizations and safety groups argue that autonomous vehicles are important for creating a safer future on our nation’s roads. Drunk driving is the leading factor in fatal crashes on U.S. roads and car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens. National organizations such as National Safety Council, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Destructive Decisions and others are working together to improve public understanding of the essential need for greater road safety, and the potential for autonomous driving technology to help.