Everyone — from auto executives to regulators — has said that transportation will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50.
So what will 2017 bring?
There will be more self-driving tests in more cities, according to experts I interviewed at CES. That also means more consumers will be experiencing self-driving technology for the first time this year.
That makes it a crucial period for auto and tech companies attempting to develop and deploy self-driving cars. There is still a chance that a lack of consumer trust can stall the progress of the technology, so there’s a ton of pressure on companies to quickly create a vehicle with a high level of autonomy that drives smoothly and is safe.
During the onstage interview I moderated, panelist Jeff Owens, CTO at the auto supplier Delphi, told me “safety sells” when it comes to autonomous technology. More and more consumers are seeking vehicles that use the technology for use cases like emergency braking or driver-assist systems, according to him.
Right now, companies are racing to get the best autonomous system on the road that offers the smoothest experience, so it’s not surprising there was no shortage of opportunities to test self-driving cars at CES.
I personally rode in Hyundai’s autonomous Ionic as well as BMW’s autonomous 5 series and chipmaker Nvidia’s fully autonomous test car. Here are my impressions.
Riding with Hyundai
The semi-autonomous Hyundai navigated on local streets around the Las Vegas Convention Center alongside other vehicles. Some of the road markings were rather faded, but the vehicle was able to stay within the winding lanes thanks to a combination of its computer vision tech and 3-D maps.
The car smoothly — albeit slowly — merged into the right lane as it prepared to turn. I was surprised that the engineer sitting in the driver's seat didn't have to take control. It wasn't exactly the speed a human might drive, but I was comfortable in the back seat as it navigated the busy Las Vegas streets.
Back seat with BMW
The BMW test drive was a little different. For one, we manually drove to the highway and only turned on semi-autonomous mode once we merged to the left-most lane.
Once on the highway, it drove as well as Tesla’s autopilot. But just like with Tesla’s, I had trouble feeling comfortable enough to take in the scenery as BMW’s staffers, who came along for the ride, suggested. The technology worked and maintained a safe distance behind the car in front of it, but I still felt unsure.
BMW plans to roll out 40 self-driving cars in partnership with Mobileye and Intel by the second half of this year. At CES, the automaker showed off the car’s connected platform, which integrates with Amazon’s one-hour-delivery service and Prime Video offering as well as the driver’s calendar.
From behind the driver’s seat on the highway, I was able to make a dinner reservation on the center console by using a few hand gestures to scroll through my onscreen preferences.
The platform had already detected that I had a dinner appointment with a friend and prompted me to choose a restaurant for that time, offering a number of restaurant choices with openings for my scheduled appointment.
It was, again, fairly difficult to peel my eyes off the front of the road at first. But once I was able to, I got a glimpse of Red Rock Canyon as we drove by.
The bottom line is that the difference between how the two cars drove themselves was negligible.
While Hyundai wanted to show off the technological capabilities of the vehicle, BMW focused on the things you’re free to do while the car drives itself. Luxury carmakers have an impetus to pitch more than safety, and in this case BMW is selling time as a luxury.
As we enter higher levels of autonomy, getting consumers on board becomes more difficult. For one, fewer people will be exposed to fully self-driving cars. Both Uber’s and nuTonomy’s commercial fleet of cars are semi-autonomous.
Then there's the hurdle of convincing a person to relinquish complete control of the vehicle.
Nvidia goes full auto
Chipmaker Nvidia, which typically works behind the scenes when powering consumer technology, also offered test drives during CES that forced me to do just that. Now more than ever, how autonomous systems work will be a key differentiator among carmakers.
That’s why Nvidia was showing off how its AI processor worked and even introduced a new feature called co-pilot that detects what’s going on in and around a car and warns drivers when they need to react to something or take control of the car.
The chipmaker — which also announced it was working with Audi to get self-driving cars on the road by 2020 — offered a demo that was vastly different from BMW and Hyundai. Not only did I sit alone in the fully autonomous Nvidia-powered vehicle, I was in the back seat.
Aside from a big red button that said “STOP,” there was no real way for me to take control of the car. That’s why the company operated its test drives around a small track and also had staffers on hand with a remote control just in case they needed to step in.
The car smoothly drove around in circles, over rocks and sand as well as plain road set up for the purpose of the demonstration, twice.
Without stopping, the car began driving a third time around the track. About 10 seconds past the original starting point, I heard a loud beeping and was thrown slightly forward as the car stopped abruptly.
The staffer operating the remote came to the car to restart the system. He had remotely disengaged the car because it was getting too close to the wall. I wasn’t in danger, but he was being careful.
As a frequent rider in self-driving cars, I wasn’t entirely fazed by the situation. But I’m on record saying I'm more comfortable in fully autonomous vehicles than semi-autonomous, because I'm hyper-aware of the limitations of the latter.
This ride was a little bit of a reality check.
Had it been a first-time rider in the car, the experience could make or break trust in the technology.
Though the technology is progressing faster than many expected, as Nvidia’s senior director of automotive Danny Shapiro told me, it'll be a long time before consumers can simply take a car driving itself for granted.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.