TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Attendees at the seminars Tuesday heard speaker after speaker talk about the tens of billions of dollars being spent globally to develop autonomous vehicles. They repeatedly heard about the dream of "zero fatalities" and the monumental difficulty of putting AVs on the road to interact with other vehicles.
Like everyone else, I can see how useful Level 5 autonomous vehicles will one day be to certain segments of society.
For the elderly and disabled, such vehicles would be life-altering and maybe even life-extending, providing transportation-challenged people the promise of near-seamless integration into the mobile world. That in itself is enough of a social incentive to pursue autonomous vehicles, even without the promise they hold for reducing — and maybe even one day eliminating — traffic collisions.
But regardless of all that promise, I remain skeptical that autonomous vehicles will be as big in the market as those developing them would have us believe.
There are some reasons for this skepticism.
First, I know people still enjoy the visceral thrill of driving; if they didn't, how do you explain the logic behind virtually any high-performance car sold today?
Second, those advocating for an autonomous fleet suggest that the vehicles' high costs (remember those tens of billions above?) will be offset by the revenue produced from the AVs "working" when they're not in personal use, to provide lifts to others. I don't think that's realistic, given what the average taxi today looks like after it's been on the road for even a short time — and that's with a driver behind the wheel to keep watch on the passengers. Who's going to clean that up every day before its owner needs it again?
And finally, I don't think America is serious in its commitment to "zero fatalities." If it was, helmets for all motorcyclists would be mandatory everywhere, instead of in just 19 states.
Maybe it's time to rethink how much this industry is spending in pursuit of this dream.