This past week, there was quite a bit of news on the autonomous car front. Of course, the big news came out on Tuesday, where Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and Google announced their partnership. Google will be adding 100 of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivans (not to be confused with the SUV model) into their self-driving car fleet, although ownership of that data hasn't been decided yet. The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica will get the same treatment. Other self-driving car news this past week included GM and Lyft announcing that they will have autonomous 2017 Chevrolet Bolt's on public roads, and actually being used for picking up Lyft passengers and delivering them to their destination before the end of 2017. Two big pieces of news that shows us that autonomous cars really are the future, and the future is coming really soon.
Google has been working on their self-driving cars for a few years. In their fleet, they have used their own car which was built in-house. But also the Lexus RX450h, the Audi TT, and Toyota Prius. As of March 2016, the entire fleet has traveled almost 1.5 million miles. They've had a few crashes although the majority of them weren't their fault. You see, these autonomous vehicles follow the rules of the road to the letter, however drivers on the road with them don't always do the same. Everyone has been excited about Google's self-driving car program, and we've even seen auto-makers like GM, Ford, Tesla, and many others working on their own self-driving car technology. In fact, Ford is testing their own autonomous cars in the snow – something Google isn't doing, yet. These autonomous cars are the future, and they are getting really interesting. Could you imagine hailing a cab, and it pulls up only to have no one in the car? You just tell it where you want to go and it takes you there? That could be reality in the next couple years.
There has been a lot of talk as of late about what these self-driving cars could mean for the future of selling and buying cars. Seeing as Google, GM (GM has bought Sidecar after they went out of business, and has also invested $500 million into Lyft, a competitor to Uber), Uber and likely some other companies are looking to use these autonomous vehicles for ride sharing. So instead of everyone having a car, this is going to mean that you'll be able to get a car from an app like Uber, to take you to where you need to be. Instead of having to own your own car. One of the major benefits of this is that there will be less cars on the road. And with Google looking to go electric with their vehicles, it'll mean less pollution as well. So you'll be sitting in traffic less – we hope – and the air around us will be cleaner. It's tough to argue with those advantages.
Another advantage and one that you'll definitely notice right away is that you won't need to buy a car. Think about how much money you spend on your car each year. Between oil changes, putting gas in the car, getting maintenance done, car insurance and even payments on your car. That can add up to be pretty expensive. But if you are using a ride-sharing service that uses autonomous cars, you could save a boat load of cash each year. We don't have any idea how expensive these rides will be in these autonomous cars, but in theory, they should be cheaper. Currently, Uber uses independent contractors to drive their customers around. Which Uber needs to pay. With an autonomous vehicle, they only need to pay to keep the car maintained, really. And of course, make a profit. So they should be cheaper, how much cheaper is another story, though.
Perhaps the biggest advantage here is that there will be less accidents. Currently, the average number of deaths from car accidents is 1.3 million per year, globally. On top of that, there are about 20 to 50 million others that get injured in car accidents. With self-driving cars, these numbers will go down drastically. As mentioned already, these cars follow the rules precisely. They don't run red lights, they don't do illegal turns, they don't speed, or anything else that could be dangerous or illegal. Out of all the accidents that Google's self-driving cars have been in, just one was their fault. Where it side-swiped a bus. Drastically reducing the number of accidents is definitely something we can all get behind.
Another tidbit of news that came out in the last few weeks is the fact that the self-driving car program is just about ready to graduate from X. For those that don't know, X is a division of Alphabet where all the moonshot programs are. Things like Project Loon, Project Wing, Project Glass (also known as Google Glass) and much more. When programs graduate from X, they have to be able to turn a profit somehow. And with the company about ready to push the self-driving car out of the labs and into its own company, Alphabet must have a plan for making this company bring in some revenue. Now the self-driving car may not graduate today, tomorrow, next month or even this year, but it is about ready to do so. And it's going to make for a very exciting time.
That leads us to wonder, what will Google name that new company? Perhaps Google Auto? Last August, it was reported that Google already has a name. And that is indeed Google Auto. The 23 autonomous Lexus RX450h's we talked about earlier, are manufactured by a company named "Google Auto LLC". So it's fairly likely that could be the name of the self-driving car business once it leaves X. And with Google working with FCA on their 2017 Chrysler Pacifica's, it looks like we're getting closer and closer to these cars being available on public roads (outside of the four cities where Google already drives these cars – Mountain View, CA; Austin, TX; Kirkland, WA and Phoenix, AZ), and being available for purchase.
Google is facing some stiff competition in the auto industry. Google is the only player right now, that doesn't have experience in mass-producing vehicles. Meanwhile, other manufacturers have been around for decades. Their self-driving car is partially the reason why many auto makers have resisted adding in Android Auto and giving Google all the data that they want with the system. As they see Google as a competitor, because of their self-driving car. And you don't want to give your competitor all of your secrets right? Depending on how quickly they get their vehicle to market, Google could have a pretty tough time selling their vehicles, unless they severely undercut the competition. Which is possible. You see, Google wants to collect the data that these cars are going to send to them. Google could also show ads on displays in the cars, which would offset the price a bit. And having ads like that in self-driving cars won't be as big of a deal, considering the fact that you aren't driving, so your attention isn't solely on the road.
For auto makers though, this could actually cost them some of their sales. With many companies wanting to go the route of ride-sharing, instead of selling cars to consumers. This is going to mean auto makers are selling less cars. Something that they are already seeing – hence the buyout for the big three here in the US a few years ago – but it'll be even more evident once these self-driving cars go mainstream. Auto makers are also going to be seeing more competition. We've been talking about Google and their self-driving car. But don't forget that Apple is looking to get into this game as well. They've been hiring quite a few auto executives in the past few months. Which leads many to believe that they are working on their own self-driving car as well. Uber is working on their own autonomous vehicles that can be used for their ride-sharing services too. So auto makers like GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Audi and the many others out there, are going to have some stiff competition.
So how long before we start seeing self-driving cars become mainstream? It's likely still a couple years away. You see the auto-industry lags behind quite a bit. Now it's not because the companies are slow, but because it takes a while for a new car to be prototyped, then built to be the final model and sold. On top of that, customers don't buy cars as often as they buy smartphones, tablets or even laptops. Auto makers have been working on the tech you see inside 2016 and 2017 model vehicles for a few years now, and they are only just now coming to actual cars you can buy. We're already seeing some autonomous features in many vehicles, but it's not fully autonomous just yet. Tesla is probably the closest, with their auto-pilot feature on the Model S.
It's nothing new that Google has their hands dipped in all sorts of markets and niches, but they have single-handedly accelerated the research needed for self-driving cars. Just a few years ago, we would have never believed that we would see one in our lifetime. Especially a self-driving car that is legal and can be driven on public roads. But that is today's reality, at least in a handful of cities that have approved Google's self-driving cars.