The Self-Driving Car Industry’s Biggest Turning Point Yet

As my colleague Neal Boudette noted, Waymo’s announcement showed that the company has “an audacious vision that goes far beyond even the most optimistic plans of its rivals.” Waymo says that by 2020 — that is, two years from now — its fleet of self-driving Jaguars will be doing as many as a million trips per day.

Self-driving car companies are notorious for overhyping their progress. But the Waymo announcement, complete with specific timetables, cost projections and firm indicators of fleet size, is a really, really big deal. As Alexis Madrigal wrote in a piece for The Atlantic, if Waymo is within even 50 percent of a million daily rides in two years, “the United States will have entered an entirely new phase in robotics and technology.”

It’s unclear if Uber’s tragic accident in Arizona will have a broader effect on the autonomous vehicle industry. There could be a regulatory backlash that would hamper all self-driving projects, regardless of progress. Manufacturers could decide to be extra cautious when it comes to rolling out their projects on public roads, in order to avoid a worst-case scenario.

But if Waymo’s announcement is an indication of where the rest of the self-driving car industry is heading, we shouldn’t expect too much of a slowdown. Autonomous vehicle manufacturers believe, with reason, that keeping their test vehicles on the road is a public health issue. The sooner they get safe self-driving cars to the masses, they say, the sooner we can avert some of the nearly 40,000 traffic deaths that happen in the United States every year.

That means, unfortunately, that more accidents are inevitable — and underscores the importance of creating a reliable standard to measure the technological progress of self-driving car projects. But it also means that the self-driving future could arrive, from Waymo or someone else, sooner than most people think.

Kevin Roose writes a column called The Shift and is a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter here: @kevinroose.

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