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Self-driving automobiles are coming along bit by bit

Having kept riders waiting for years, they are finally arriving


By Simon Wright

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A high-performance sensor is not needed to detect the list of missed targets for the widespread adoption of self-driving cars. General Motors once promised autonomous vehicles (avs) in abundance by 2019. Ford and Lyft, a ride-hailing firm, had reckoned 2021 was more plausible. For a decade, Elon Musk has loudly proclaimed that fully autonomous Teslas were a year away at most. Taking a nap behind the wheel on a tediously long drive remains a distant dream. But broad adoption of AVs will inch closer in 2024.

In the coming year robotaxis will spread beyond test zones and powerful self-driving features will become available to more motorists. The pursuit of autonomy has split into three camps: firms working on fully autonomous robotaxis; carmakers focused on various forms of driver assistance; and Tesla, which does its own thing.

Hailing robotaxis will become more commonplace. Waymo (owned by Alphabet) and Cruise (GM’s av arm), have long been testing vehicles. They have been charging for rides in San Francisco around the clock, with no need for safety drivers (though Cruise’s licence was suspended in October after an accident involving a pedestrian).

In 2024 such vehicles, already operating in Austin, Los Angeles and Phoenix, as well as avs from Amazon’s Zoox, may pop up in other American cities including Atlanta, Miami and Seattle. In China, Baidu, a tech giant, and Pony.ai, also both with small operations in Beijing and other cities, have similar expansion plans—in Baidu’s case to 65 cities by 2025.

Establishing a robotaxi business requires years of investment, and the prospects remain uncertain. Many carmakers think a faster route to profit is to add self-driving tech to ordinary cars. Some already have “level 2” systems that can steer, brake and change lanes. But Mercedes-Benz is leading the way with Drive Pilot, a “level 3” system that does not require constant supervision. Already available in Germany, it will become available in several American states in 2024, as a $2,500-a-year subscription option in some of the firm’s fanciest models. Crucially, Mercedes assumes full legal liability when Drive Pilot is on. Other carmakers are not far behind: Ford, Stellantis and others are likely to launch similar “level 3” systems in 2024.

And that leaves Tesla. Despite much hype, its self-driving system is “level 2”, requiring constant supervision and hands on the steering wheel. Mr Musk claims the next version, likely to be made available in 2024, provides a far higher level of autonomy. Perhaps it will. One way or another, the driverless journey is creeping ever closer.

Simon Wright, Industry editor, The Economist

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2024 under the headline “Wheels within wheels”


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