Self-driving cars are always 5 years away

Q: Wasn’t it like 10 years ago that Elon Musk promised we’d have fully autonomous cars in five years? When am I going to get a car that can drive me around?

A: It’s easy to poke fun at Musk, since he’s the loudest person to be wrong about autonomous cars, but he’s not alone. Along with Tesla, carmakers including Mercedes, Volvo, Nissan, Toyota, GM, Honda, Hyundai and Google all predicted that we’d have self-driving cars by 2020.

In 2016 Anthony Foxx, U.S. Transportation secretary at the time, predicted that by 2021 we’d no longer need a driver’s license because we’d just summon an automated car service. Musk went bigger (of course), saying in 2019 that, “It’s financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla,” and following up by saying that “next year for sure” there would be over a million self-driving Teslas on the road.

There have been more tempered predictions, but they didn’t come from experts. The movie Demolition Man, which came out in 1993 and is set in 2032, will be wrong about much of the future, but made a closer guess of when autonomous cars would become reality (and yet likely still too soon). I wonder how it feels to the leaders in autonomous tech that screenwriters from the early 1990s were better than them at guessing the timeline for self-driving cars.

You might write off all those predictions as the irrational optimism of tech nerds, but it does matter. One of the big claims of the robot car folks is that once we all give up our steering wheels, we’ll see a 90% reduction in traffic fatalities. Even if that number is overstated, it’s not unreasonable. Human error is a factor in up to 94% of traffic fatalities. From 2012-21 Washington state had a 53% increase in traffic fatalities, and while the final numbers for 2022 aren’t in yet, it’s going to be higher yet.

Yes, that’s bad, but we don’t need to wait for a tech savior. Of the 670 traffic fatalities in 2021, half involved an impaired driver, 31% involved speeding, and 19% involved a distracted driver.

Collectively those three high-risk behaviors were a factor in about 70% of fatal crashes. We could get a long way toward that 90% reduction the robot car builders are promising just by practicing basic safe driving behaviors.

Will we ever get fully autonomous cars? Based on what the experts have been saying for the past decade or so, self-driving cars are always, no matter what year it is, five years away. Sure, there are a few test projects out there; a semi-truck that successfully drove 80 miles without a driver on board, and several cities have autonomous ride-hailing as long as it’s in on a pre-determined set of roads.

For the rest of us, what we have available now is Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. Yes, you still need to be an attentive driver, but features like lane assist, emergency braking, blind spot warning, adaptive cruise, and many others can help when a mostly focused driver slips up for a moment.

We’re going to make some mistakes; we’re human. But committing to never engage in high-risk driving, and using any safety features your car already has instead of turning them off because they bug you (or your ego can’t handle a car being smarter than you), can get us a lot closer to our goal of zero deaths on our roads.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.