When looking at the autonomous driving industry, there are multiple components to consider before it becomes a reality. Broadly speaking, two main components have found their way to the forefront: Technology and regulation.
We're progressing quite quickly on the technology side, but it's clear that the roadmap doesn't look like many thought it would a few years ago.
Rather than scaling from Level 1 to 2 all the way up to full-on autonomous driving (Level 5), the industry is branching out. Companies are geofencing specific highway routes for autonomous vehicles and semi trucks, as well as cities for robo-taxi services. At the same time, everyone from Tesla (TSLA) - Get Tesla Inc Report to Audi and more are working to bring autonomous driving solutions to individual consumer cars as well.
Companies like General Motors' (GM) - Get General Motors Company Report Cruise, Alphabet's (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report Waymo, Mercedes Benz, Uber and others will be able to offer autonomous taxi services to customers in just a few years. Waymo is looking to launch its commercial service sometime this year in Arizona, while Cruise is eyeing a 2019 launch. Zoox, an autonomous mobility startup from the Bay Area, says it's aiming for a launch in 2020. Really, this is happening now.
It's clear that there's a financial incentive for autonomous driving services to come to market. But more importantly, there's an enormous safety component. For as much as consumers seem to distrust autonomous driving services (likely thanks to a few major stories in the press this year), self-driving cars are the answer to making our roadways safer.
Many won't trust an autonomous pilot, yet don't bat an eye at the fact that our fellow human drivers are responsible for killing 37,000 people in motor accidents each year in the U.S.
Talk to anyone in the industry and they'd rather see their 16-year-old kid get in the backseat of an autonomous vehicle than get their driver's permit. Just ask Danny Shapiro, the senior director of automotive at Nvidia (NVDA) - Get NVIDIA Corporation Report . He moderated a panel of four guests at this 2018 GTC conference in Washington D.C., the city's largest artificial intelligence conference.
Members of the panel ranged from the startup community to well-established players in the auto industry and regulators.
This is a "once in a generation opportunity" to really put safety at the forefront, said Bert Kaufman, head of corporate and regulatory affairs at Zoox. He also pointed out that technology is usually ahead of regulation, but that's true for most situations.
After listening to the panel, it's clear that regulators like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), want to help, not hinder, the progress. But they want to make sure it's done in a way that protects drivers, too.
Melissa Froelich, chief counsel at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, pointed out that the creation of this industry is going to lead to jobs growth, and the U.S. wants those jobs to stay here. While some may counter that it will eliminate jobs -- like truckers and taxi drivers -- we're years down the road from that happening. If anything, autonomous technology will assist in our labor efforts long before it begins eliminating them. Case in point, the U.S. continues to face a shortage of truck drivers.
Also consider how many jobs it will create. Fleet managers, developers, data scientists and test drivers are just a few that come to mind.
Another thing tech companies and regulators can agree on besides safety? Trust. Without public trust -- which has been waning in recent years -- it will be hard to get Congress on board. Without Congress, these technologies can stagnate and frustration will mount.
It's also clear there's a bit of a chicken and egg situation on the industry's hands. Tech companies need governments on all levels (federal, state and local) to help push through regulations on these new endeavors, but regulators needs to see what they feel are satisfactory benchmarks.
Here's the problem, though: What's the benchmark for an industry that's just starting to exist but is moving at rapid speed? The answer isn't clear and both sides are trying to figure that out as we speak.
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author had no positions in the stocks mentioned.