You’d barely even know it, but CES just happened this week. In the last couple years the big technology trade show was very much a car show, where automakers and startups alike showed off the latest in hopeful self-driving systems always billed as just “a few years away.” In 2019? Barely a peep from anyone, and that may be because last year was the year everyone got real about autonomous cars.
After a year that saw the first death of a human at the hands of a self-driving Uber prototype, and then an admission by Google’s own self-driving technology chief that such cars won’t ever be fully able to drive in all conditions, those in the automotive and mobility spaces seem to be taking a much more measured approach to things from here on out.
Development of autonomous cars continues, to be sure, as does the advancement of semi-autonomous driving aids like those found on many modern cars. But we seem to be past the days where every car company, startup and government official swears we’ll have a fleet of robo-taxis or delivery vehicles by 2020. (Never mind that no one’s really figured out how these are going to make money.)
And the automotive industry as a whole may be coming around to where we’ve been since 2017, that autonomous cars may just never happen. At all.
Even arguably the boldest automaker to put semi-autonomous tech into actual practice, Tesla, seems to be taking a more cautious approach in 2019. For the last couple years, Tesla promised that its cars would eventually have a “Full Self-Driving” capability. As The Verge noted, Tesla boss Elon Musk promised in 2016 that all cars would have the hardware capability for full autonomy, just that it needed the software to back it up, and before that he claimed the cars would “completely drive themselves without any human interaction by 2017,” the story says.
Needless to say, none of that happened, and while Autopilot is an extremely impressive semi-autonomous system—perhaps the most advanced one on the road along with General Motors’ Super Cruise, and the latter was deployed in a very limited capacity—it has had its issues on the car side and the human side. In October, Tesla quietly pulled the Full Self-Driving option from its online configurator for its cars, though you could still order it “off the menu” if you wanted to spend a couple extra grand.
Even Tesla spokespeople now tell us that they cannot set a firm estimate for when its cars will genuinely be able to drive themselves.
Now, as Electrek noted in a story yesterday citing internal emails, sales advisors have been warning drivers not to get their hopes up about Full Self-Driving being available anytime soon:
“Before I take your order for the FSD, I would like to point out that the legal aspect of Full Self Driving is very far away. Especially in Europe, the USA might be closer to get it legalized.”
And even with an eventual hardware replacement—which Musk said involves an Autopilot computer upgrade to be free of charge for those who ordered the Full Self-Driving package—it’s still a ways off:
“So even when we have the hardware ready, and your car would have it, you would most likely not be able to use it for a very long time.”
The first line implies it’s pending regulatory approval to get all this off the ground, and that is true—and as we’ve seen time and again the law’s always a few years behind the speed of technology. But there’s also the uncertainty of when the tech itself will ever be fully ready for primetime. In 2019, everyone, Tesla included, seems to be taking a more measured and realistic approach to how autonomous driving will be rolled out.
So while Autopilot is a useful road trip companion that needs to be minded by a cautious, awake and not-drunk human being, as are the rest of those systems, it’s likely they’ll be that way for some time as they incrementally get better. If nobody at the bullshit-fest that is CES is making the claim that we’ll have robot cars in a year or two, we probably won’t. And even Tesla seems real about it too.