This year saw remarkable progress in the new economies. Virtual reality moved from the fringe to
the forefront with the much-anticipated release of Facebooks Oculus Rift headset. Private
space companies continued to thrive shrugging off
the SpaceX rocket disaster late in the summer and
committed to reach Mars in the next couple of
decades. And the cleantech and clean energy industries are burgeoning
again, according to data published in 2016.
All of the new economy industries advanced, but one stands
out in my mind: autonomous vehicles.
In 2016 it became clear that self-driving vehicles are no
longer just a tech nerds dream, as they were when
GM Firebird II, a so-called autonomous concept car, debuted
in 1956. Taken together, several developments over the past
year demonstrate that the technology is nearing a tipping point
to commercial viability.
Many threw their weight behind autonomous vehicles in 2016.
Several automakers, including Ford and BMW, made promises that they will develop
road-ready self-driving cars in the next five years. Uber put
autonomous vehicles on the road in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and competitor Lyft said that a majority of rides
in its network will be in fully self-driving cars by
President Barack Obama himself urged the federal government to spend
almost $4 billion over ten years on developing regulation
around autonomous cars. California and Michigan passed laws allowing trials of
unmanned vehicles on their roads; these two states seem to be
duking it out to become the industrys epicenter. In
December the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed a rule requiring all vehicles to
communicate with each other by 2023, a change that in the short
term would help prevent accidents but in the long term would
help pave the way for autonomous vehicles. And in perhaps the
most important indicator of the industrys permanence, the
federal government said that computers could qualify as
There were some setbacks when it comes to public perception
of the technology. Googles self-driving car, which hit 2
million miles on its odometer this year, caused its first crash. Teslas
Autopilot may have been involved in two fatal car accidents in
2016, one in China and one in Florida. Also, people still seem
wary of autonomous vehicles: A survey conducted by AAA found
that three out of four American are afraid of unmanned cars.
Still, the industry as a whole is trending upward. As of market
close on December 16, the combination of companies expressed in
the Kensho Autonomous Vehicles Index was up more than 15
This brings us to what we might expect in 2017. As I see it,
the critical technology-related challenge for
autonomous-vehicle makers will be to find an obstacle detection
system that combines affordability and accuracy. Googles
system consists of cameras, radar, and a laser-based light
detection and ranging (LIDAR) unit the LIDAR alone costs
more than $80,000. Tesla, on the other hand, doesnt use
LIDAR but relies on camera- and radar-based hardware, so its
entire system costs less than $10,000.
LIDAR is more accurate and will be for many years, but
its not clear that its level of precision is necessary
for self-driving cars. Teslas system could keep improving
over time and has a bigger chance of being commercially viable.
And because cameras are much cheaper, Teslas obstacle
detection system allows for a greater degree of redundancy.
Of course, technologies that are difficult to mass produce
arent the only obstacle these companies face. It remains
to be seen which route will pay off: the riskier but
longer-term bets placed by Tesla, which is keeping its car
creation in-house, or the more conservative decisions by Google
and others to partner with established carmakers.
From a technological standpoint, though, the one-company
model seems to make more sense its easier to make
systemwide updates and push those developments to users without
the overhead of cross-company coordination. So perhaps it does
make sense to reinvent the wheel. At least thats what
tech players like Tesla and Apple, which revealed its plan for a self-driving car
earlier this month, are betting on.
The question remains of when and how autonomous vehicles
will be adopted on a mass scale. Theyve had some success
clearing regulatory hurdles, but so far, state laws have
allowed for self-driving cars only on a trial basis. Widespread
adoption will likely require special infrastructure to accommodate
autonomous vehicles; for example, intersection signals may have
to be tweaked so theyre more visible to the cars
This year Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration, stated that it will be decades before
rule the roads. Although proponents may find that
disappointing at first glance, its a significant
milestone. The NHTSA chief was speaking in front of a House
Energy and Commerce subcommittee, telling political officials
that self-driving cars domination will be a reality
someday. Clearly the technology is no longer just a dream seen
on The Jetsons.