I took my first ride in an autonomous vehicle less than five years ago. Both “ride” and “autonomous” might be pushing it: It was a Volkswagen Passat which could park itself, but it wasn’t smart enough to avoid any humans who wandered into its path. And even the one autonomous trick it could perform required a trunk full of fancy electronic equipment.
Each time I’ve tooled around in a self-driving vehicle since then–including trips in a Google car and a Nissan Leaf–it’s felt less like an experiment and more like something which might actually become common in the foreseeable future. And that’s never been more true than with the excursion I just made in an Audi SQ5 modified for autonomous driving by Delphi, the gigantic supplier of parts, systems, and technologies to most of the world’s car manufacturers.
My jaunt around Mountain View and Palo Alto, Calif. was only 14 minutes long–mostly on surface roads, with a dash of highway driving. But Delphi is about to take its Audi on a 3,500-mile trek from San Francisco to New York, during which it will collect terabytes of data for use as it continues to develop self-driving technologies.
I’ve already spent enough time being driven around by autonomous vehicles (always with a human behind the wheel just in case) that at least some of the novelty has worn off. The fact that Delphi’s car drove itself pretty much like a human would have–stopping at safe distances at stop lights, switching lanes when necessary, and not doing anything which felt particularly robotic–didn’t startle me. But I was surprised by how normal the vehicle looked.
Unlike the Google car I’d rode in, there was no giant spinning lidar sensor atop the vehicle to tip off other motorists that this particular Audi SUV was anything unusual. It was well equipped with lidar, radar, and cameras, but they were unobtrusive–some of the gadgetry was even concealed behind the bumpers and license plate. The data collected by those sensors was displayed on the ordinary in-dash infotainment system rather than on specially rigged-up LCD screens. And the tech didn’t take up an out-of-the-ordinary amount of space, which I didn’t realize until after the trip was over and we popped the trunk, which was empty.
That such an mundane-looking car could do something so extraordinary is in part just a sign of how much progress the industry has made tackling the challenge of autonomy. But it also has something to do with the fact that Delphi is the company behind this specific vehicle. (It’s partnering with a startup named Ottomatika, which provides some of the software smarts.) As a supplier of parts to vehicle manufacturers, Delphi isn’t working on self-driving as an exercise in futurism. It’s doing it because the car companies of the world are going to expect it to have competence in this field over the next few years. Delphi will need to be able to supply the necessary components, at a price and level of integration which makes sense for production vehicles.
To a greater degree than I expected, much of the tech in Delphi’s Audi wasn’t bleeding-edge stuff but rather stock equipment already in vehicles on the road. As Delphi’s John Absmeier and Serge Lambermont explained to me, the company already sells some of the building blocks of autonomous driving in large volume. Actually, it’s been doing so for years, dating back to the late 1990s when it introduced radar systems for adaptive cruise control.
Unlike professional visionaries such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Google’s Sergey Brin, Absmeier, who heads Delphi’s Silicon Valley lab, erred on the side of caution when I asked how soon a consumer might be able to go out and buy a self-driving car. Instead of naming a year, he pointed out that vehicles will take on more and more responsibility for the job in bits and pieces over the years to come.
Still, my ride left me more optimistic than ever that the self-driving rubber is about to hit the road. My own car is a little over a year old, and only has 14,000 miles on the odometer. By the time it hits 100,000 miles and I begin to itch for a new ride, I expect that the notion of buying a more-or-less autonomous car won’t be fantasy–and might even be in my price range.