When can we buy self-driving vehicles? No one knows

February 6, 2020

Tyson Fisher


Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its fourth edition of guidance for the introduction of automated vehicles. That must mean self-driving vehicles are coming soon, right? Yes. Well, no. Ummm, maybe?

Over the past several years, there has been a lot of talk about self-driving vehicles. Whether it’s cars, trucks or both, experts and stakeholders have been predicting when consumers can finally sit back and sleep during their commute to work. However, the timeline varies greatly from one source to another.

Too many stories about self-driving vehicles hitting the market have a black-and-white approach. It’s either happening really soon or no sooner than a decade. Very rarely do we read reports that shine a light on the reality: We have no clue.

A decade ago, self-driving vehicles were just starting to make headlines. Around 2010, Google was just beginning real-world testing of its autonomous vehicles. According to a New York Times story about the project, the design was established in 2005 for the “second Grand Challenge of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a $2 million Pentagon prize for driving autonomously over 132 miles in the desert.”

Most notably, that article from 2010 states the following: “Even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away.”

A bit off.

Five years ago, Elon Musk said the switch to self-driving vehicles could take 20 years. At the same time, Forbes predicted the following:

  • 2020 – “Low-speed, partially autonomous vehicles may be permitted in controlled settings like retirement communities. Also possible: dedicated highway lanes for self-driving cars.”
  • 2025 – “Highly automated driving will be allowed on more roads, but drivers will still need to be able to take over in certain situations. Public transportation could well be driverless.”
  • 2030 – “People will be able to summon driverless cars anytime to take them anywhere. Long-haul cargo delivery will be autonomous.”

Also in 2015, consulting firm McKinsey and Company interviewed 30 self-driving experts across the globe. Its estimates were more conservative.

“In the medium term (through 2040), on-highway trucks will likely be the first vehicles to feature the full technology on public roads,” the report states.

Today, there is still no consensus among experts and stakeholders regarding a timeline for self-driving vehicles.

In a news release sent out on Feb. 6, Statista predicts that by 2030, one in 10 vehicles across the world will be self-driving. On the other hand, data and analytics company GlobalData has a different opinion.

According to a news release, GlobalData has significantly decreased its outlook. Last year, GlobalData expected annual production of Level 4 self-driving vehicles to hit nearly 40,000 units within four years. Now, it expects annual production of a little more than 23,000 in the same period, nearly half of what was expected last year. Its 10-year outlook saw a similar drop as did expectations for Level 5 self-driving vehicles.

“The sheer cost of developing autonomous vehicles is beginning to mount and many companies are under pressure to generate returns on their investments,” said GlobalData Automotive Analyst Mike Vousden. “With no imminent breakthrough in fully self-driving level 4 and level 5 vehicles, some will have to reconsider their investment strategies, possibly settling for partial automation for the foreseeable future.”

Ten years ago, self-driving vehicle deployment was as soon as eight years. Five years ago, even with more knowledge, the timeframe ranged from 10 to 25 years or more. In 2020, with even more technological development, no one can agree on when we may see self-driving vehicles.

Going back to that 2010 New York Times article, this was mentioned:

But the advent of autonomous vehicles poses thorny legal issues, the Google researchers acknowledged. Under current law, a human must be in control of a car at all times, but what does that mean if the human is not really paying attention as the car crosses through, say, a school zone, figuring that the robot is driving more safely than he would?

And in the event of an accident, who would be liable? The person behind the wheel or the maker of the software?


A decade later, and those questions still have not been answered.

In reality, no one knows anything when it comes to technological timelines. Technological advances move at a snail’s pace for a variety of reasons, including R&D, costs, social acceptance, regulatory hurdles, etc.

For example, let’s look at cellphones.

Patents for cellphone-like devices were filed as early as 1917. World War II escalated the need for mobile communication and gave birth to Bell System’s Mobile Telephone Service in 1946. Based on VHF radio waves, the units weighed 80 pounds with a whopping three channels for all calls. The first mobile phone call was made on this system in St. Louis from a car in 1946. The service cost the equivalent of about $200 in today’s dollars. Individual calls cost anywhere from $4 to just over $5. Not cheap. About 30,000 calls a week were made by the 5,000 customers.

By 1965, a newer version of the technology added a few more channels. However, the system could only handle 40,000 customers. In more congested cities, it was not unusual to wait half an hour to place a call.

The first truly handheld, cellular mobile phone call was made in 1973 by Martin Cooper and John F. Mitchell of Motorola.

The phone weighed more than 4 pounds and the battery lasted about 30 minutes. It would be eight more years before the FCC would allocate frequencies for what would be 1G cell technology.

The first commercially available cellphone, the DynaTAC 800x, was introduced in 1983. It retailed at about $4,000, equivalent to $10,000 today. Yes, a $10,000 cellphone. By the 1990s, 2G cellular technology was developed, followed by 3G in 2001.

McKinsey and Co., the same one mentioned above, predicted in 1983 that there would be 900,000 cellphone subscribers in the U.S. by 2000. That number was realized in 1987. There were closer to 100,000,000 subscribers in 2000.

As you can see, new technology does not go from concept to market within a decade or two. It is typically a multigenerational process that experiences setbacks and spikes in progress. For the most part, there are years of plateaus between the peaks and valleys. Self-driving vehicle technology will be no exception.