The Way We Talk About Autonomy Is a Lie, and That’s Dangerous


No matter what you’ve been told—and told, and told again—our self-driving future is a long and uncharted ways off. Pretending otherwise might have dire consequences. Here’s an unvarnished look at the current reality.

You can be forgiven for thinking that autonomous cars, the all-seeing, self-driving, accident-free future of human transportation, have already arrived on a road near you. After all, the media have been writing headlines to that effect for years now: “Let the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future is Here” (Wired, January 2012); “Like it or Not, the Autonomous Car Is Here—Almost” (Autoweek, May 2013); “The Driverless Car Comes to Washington” (The Washington Post video, August 2014); “Driverless Cars Are Already Here” (TechCrunch, June 2015); “Driverless Cars Are Here—Now What?” (The Hill, September 2016); “Self Driving Cars Are Here, Are You Ready?” (Tech.Co, December 2016).

And so on.

But this is, at best, only partially true. While a number of automakers have engineered vehicles that can pilot themselves with an ability unfathomable even a decade ago, after months of interviews with the people shaping the self-driving car industry it’s clear that our autonomous future—the one where you take a nap as your vehicle whisks you to your destination in comfort and safety—is not in any real sense here now, nor around the corner, but likely decades away. All claims to the contrary are either based on misunderstanding or are intentionally misleading.

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