Driverless Cars: You Heard It Here First

Lawrence D. Burns asks, in the Wall Street Journal and in his new book Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car, why the major automobile companies ignored the technology that could create self-driving cars and are now playing catchup to Google:

Early in 2011, two top engineers for Google traveled together to Detroit on what amounted to a diplomatic mission. They had just spent 18 months on a top-secret project called Chauffeur: the development of a car that could drive itself over 10 different 100-mile routes on public roads. Now they were looking for a partner to carry the project forward. “The idea was, if you’re going to make self-driving cars, you have to work with a car company,” recalls Chris Urmson, who made the trip with fellow engineer Anthony Levandowski. “Maybe they’ll sell us cars to build a fleet. Maybe we’re going to be retrofitting our stuff onto their cars to sell.”

But they couldn’t find any takers.

They might have been better prepared if they had read Cato analyst Randal O’Toole’s early warning, also in the Wall Street Journal but in early 2010:

Consumers today can buy cars that steer themselves; accelerate and brake to maintain a safe driving distance from cars ahead; and detect and avoid collisions with other cars on all sides. Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.

O’Toole’s article was based on his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About ItReading his manuscript was the first time I’d heard about the possibility of self-driving cars. You’d think Detroit would have been ahead of me, but maybe not so much.