2019 Tech Predictions: An Autonomous Car Travels Across the United States

The cars are getting more experienced.

Despite many setbacks, autonomous cars could finally have their moment in 2019. Specifically, we predict someone will achieve one of the industry’s most sought-after milestones: a coast-to-coast drive, sans human driver, across the United States.

The prospect of a computer-driven car has excited commentators for decades, with Google’s self-driving car project bringing the idea to a more mainstream audience when it burst onto the scene in 2009. That project has since been spun off into its own company called Waymo, existing under Google’s umbrella firm Alphabet. But despite nearly 10 years of active development, and over 10 million autonomous miles, Waymo is still ferrying people around a small area of Arizona.

We’re reporting on 19 predictions for 2019. This is #4.

But that could all change next year. A coast-to-coast drive would demonstrate the technology’s ability to a broad audience, even if it doesn’t herald the start of consumers undertaking their own coast-to-coast drives. A supervised trek across the fourth-largest country would help prove the self-driving car’s viability, and it could be about to happen.

Autonomous Cars Pick Up Speed in 2019

“It’s certain that someone will do this,” Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for Navigant Research, tells Inverse. “While Tesla always seems to suck all of the air out of the room when they talk about automated vehicles, even if they do complete such a drive, it won’t be the first.”

Delphi Automotive completed a 3,400-mile trip in April 2015, with an Audi SQ5 equipped with a safety driver in the front seat starting from the Golden Gate Bridge and ending in midtown Manhattan nine days later. The company said that throughout the journey, “the vehicle encountered complex driving situations such as traffic circles, construction zones, bridges, tunnels, aggressive drivers and a variety of weather conditions.”

There’s just one problem: The trip was only 99 percent autonomous. While it’s unrealistic to assume someone will complete a drive next year without a safety driver, it’s possible that someone could finish a trip without taking back control from the computer — or “disengaging.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk originally promised his cars would be able to complete such a drive by the end of 2017. He made the declaration at an October 2016 event, where he outlined the “Hardware 2” suite of sensors included with every new vehicle. The company’s cars now ship with eight cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors to support full autonomy at a later date. Although the company missed that 2017 deadline, it was more because it’s waiting to release a more general solution.

No hands!
No hands!

“We could have done the coast-to-coast drive but it would have required too much specialized code to effectively game it, or make it somewhat brittle in that it would work for one particular route but not be a general solution,” Musk said in February.

While Tesla may hold off, a competitor like Waymo could steal the crown in a display of public relations savvy.

Why It Could Prove a Flop

There’s still a high chance it won’t happen, too, mainly because autonomous cars aren’t very good right now. An August report claimed that Waymo’s cars can’t complete basic moves like turning left on faster roads or interpreting driver signals. Some members of the industry are taking cards off the table, Uber laid off most of its autonomous driving team earlier this year. When delaying an off-ramp feature for Autopilot, Musk admitted in October that it’s “extremely difficult to achieve a general solution for self-driving that works well everywhere.”

“I agree with Musk that self driving in its current state does not work well everywhere,” Shaoshan Liu, co-founder and chairman of autonomous robotics firm PerceptIn, told Inverse in October.

The same can be said for timeframes. While companies like Volkswagen and Ford are aiming to hit the roads in 2021, ARM sees this as the very earliest point, with drive-anywhere autonomous cars reaching consumers by 2027. Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, said in January 2017 that “none of us [in the industry] are close” to the dream of drive-anywhere autonomous cars. In many ways, some argue that pursuing a coast-to-coast drive could prove a distraction.

“Whether any coast-to-coast autonomous drive occurs next year is a nice demonstration of capability but largely beside the point,” Jeremy Carlson, principal analyst for IHS Markit, tells Inverse. “Deployment of the first autonomous vehicles (not to be confused with automated driving) will be in very specific areas where these companies have extensive experience and miles driven, as well as clear geofences or operational design domains and clear limitations/expectations of the technology. Doing the same with an automated driving system (where the driver still has a role to play) may relax the requirements in ODD [operational design domains] or geofences in some way, but that represents a very different technological capability than a fully autonomous vehicle requiring no human operation or supervision.”

Until that point, tricks such as riding coast-to-coast could be more harmful than anything else.

“If someone can make a vehicle drive itself from Seattle to New York across northern states in the middle of winter through snow falls, then I’ll be truly impressed,” Abuelsamid says. “Until then, summoning your car from across the country is just a waste of resources and thousands of deadhead miles, something that is antithetical to sustainable transportation.”

19 Predictions for 2019: What Inverse Thinks

Autonomous cars look like they’re in the slow lane, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pull off some surprising feats. The first autonomous drives are still likely to be bound to a small city region, like Yandex’s currently-running taxi service in Moscow or Addison Lee’s plans to bring taxis to London in 2021. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some major feats on the way, like Oxbotica’s plan to send a series of the cars on a round trip over the 60 miles between London and Oxford in the second half of 2019.

Still, the coast-to-coast drive is too tantalizing a prize for firms to resist pursuing, and a full drive would be a huge win for whoever does it — even if the end result is as “brittle” as Musk fears.

Related video: Yandex Autonomous Taxi Service Launches In Skolkovo