Season 4 - The self-driving car

Episode 4 - Will it be rolled out widely?

And so we’ve come to the end of our fourth season of Bright Futures. A season that, despite being dedicated to the self-driving car, was made by hand, by a human. If you exclude the computers which we’re writing our articles on, the smartphones we use to call up experts, the emails we send to build this newsletter, the Texas Instrument we’ve kept since school that we use to do our demonstration calculations, the artificial intelligence that produces our imagery and quite a few other things too. But let’s stop with that technophilia. As always in our season finales, it’s time to consider the future of self-driving cars. The big question? When.

A brief summary. First, the experts generally agree that there won’t be any entirely self-driving cars that require no human intervention whatsoever (so-called ‘level 5’ autonomy). We don’t have either the technology (and won’t for a long time) or the political will.

As for ‘level 4’ vehicles – those that are responsible for most deriving in certain predefined conditions and only requiring limited external assistance – things are little different. First, you’ve got to bear in mind that certain countries, notably France, have already set out that there will be no large-scale rollout of self-driving cars. Too expensive, too heavy and too dirty to roll out across the national road network. On the other hand, as the South Korean press agency Yonhap points out, South Korea announced in January 2023 that it aims to “put in place safety standards and an insurance policy between now and next year (2024) before level 4 self-driving cars are launched across the country”.

However, even in France, there’s already one situation in which level 4 vehicles can be rolled out widely. “We can envisage automated vehicles of this sort being in circulation by 2027 or 2028 but only in enclosed spaces like airports or industrial parks. In other words, they would be confined to perfectly controlled environments, without any interactions or interference from other road users other than from those who manage the sites”, explains Manon Eskenazi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratoire Ville-Mobilité-Transport (LVMT), a research centre split across the École des Ponts ParisTech and the Université Gustave Eiffel. So essentially, your best chance of climbing aboard this sort of autonomous vehicle will be on a journey from your airport terminal to your plane.

Finally, as we’ve already touched on in previous articles, only one model of level 3 Mercedes-Benz has received the American certification that allows it to drive alone, at a maximum speed of 40mph, or a little over 60km/h, and in certain very particular conditions. As for level 1 and 2 cars, which refer to levels of driving assistance, they’re already on our roads. So that leaves quite a few timelines worth exploring.

When level 5 self-driving cars will be rolled out (i.e. never):

  • We’ve already said the one about pigs flying, right?
  • And the one about never saying never, huh?

When level 4 self-driving cars will be rolled out in enclosed spaces between 2027 and 2028:

  • Global temperatures probably will have surpassed the threshold of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
  • Some clever clogs will perhaps organise factory visits with level 4 vehicles to make a bit of cash.
  • The buses used at airports will be driven by an AI assisted by an operator, rather than just a human driver. Game-changing stuff.

When South Korea will launch its level 4 self-driving car in 2024:

  • Basically nothing will have changed, as that’s just six months away, except people will think twice before crossing the road in South Korea.
  • You’ll be nearly a year older but you won’t let it get you down.
  • Flying taxis will transport the super-rich who’ve managed to bag tickets for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
  • Donald Trump will be in the running for President again, much to the pleasure of comedians but basically no one else, anywhere in the world.

When self-driving cars at levels 1, 2 and 3 will be authorised (i.e. as is already the case):

  • This is true right now, so it’s already insufferably hot and tinted sunglasses are on trend. The summer to come will perhaps be the hottest ever recorded. What a time to be alive.

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