Autonomous Cars With No Steering Wheel Could Hit Roads Sooner Than Expected

The autonomous car is about to drop the steering wheel and pedals for a free-driving pod. That’s according to Arcady Sosinov, CEO of electric car charger firm FreeWire Technologies, who believes the nascent self-driving industry is further along than many assume — with Tesla and Waymo in particular storming ahead.

“I think the steering wheel piece of it will probably go away around 2025,” Sosinov tells Inverse, explaining that on a technical level the industry “can already” remove the controls, but they will stay in place for the next six years “purely for regulation purposes.” “There will still be obviously other cars for sale that are not autonomous, but when you buy an autonomous vehicle, I think that’ll go away sooner rather than later.”

It’s a bold claim, especially considering the revised expectations around autonomous driving. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed in October 2016 that it could complete a coast-to-coast autonomous drive by the end of 2017 using one of its existing vehicles updated with the necessary computer and software, a feat it has yet to achieve. Uber halted its autonomous car initiative after a test vehicle killed a pedestrian in Arizona last March, and Drive.AI’s suggestion of segregating robo-cars from pedestrians was criticized for failing to live up to the promise of full autonomy.

Sosinov claims that in fact, Tesla is “being a little bit coy” about its capabilities. The current level two driver-assist Autopilot is just a snapshot of its internal capabilities, and the firm is “closer” to level four fully autonomous driving around a limited geographic area “than what people expect.” Sosinov also says that Waymo, which started life as Google’s self-driving car project and is now trialing a taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, is “ahead of Tesla, for sure.”

waymo
Waymo's autonomous pod car.

This matches with public information surrounding the two firms. Tesla released footage of its test car deftly navigating the streets in 2016, and Musk told investors last month that on a technical level the feature will be safe enough “probably toward the end of this year.” Waymo became the first company in November 2018 to receive clearance from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles to test its cars without any safety driver. Waymo reached 10 million fully-autonomous miles on public roads in October 2018, while Tesla reached one billion semi-autonomous miles the following month.

A car without the pedals seems the next logical step, particularly as Ford and General Motors have both explored the idea. A 2014 concept from Ideo described an office space on wheels, while Audi has presented an autonomous gym. Don’t expect these sort of far-flung ideas to launch anytime soon, though.

“I still think the concept of these huge pods, looks like a 10-foot shipping container rolling down the street…I don’t think that will be a reality for a very long time,” Sosinov says.

The dream of a bed on wheels that silently ferries you cross-country may have to wait.

Tesla Autopilot Full Self-driving Hardware in Action
Media via Waymo, Tesla, Ideo