Waymo, the self-driving car spin-off from Google parent Alphabet, began mapping Los Angeles in early October, with the hope of potentially testing its self-driving taxis in the city soon.
The company won approval from California regulators for its self-driving cars this summer, and is reportedly using 3D mapping technology to see if it’s feasible for its autonomous vehicles to drive there. Los Angeles has one of the worst traffic congestion problems in the world.
Waymo has conducted similar tests in Orlando, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Kirkland, Washington, according to reports. It is part of a growing industry for self-driving cars that include both new and traditional carmakers, as well as technology companies of all kinds.
Here’s a closer look at the self-driving car industry:
Self-driving cars, ride-sharing, and mobility services
Self-driving cars rely on sensors, artificial intelligence, and supercomputing capabilities to drive, rather than people. And they could play an important role in global transportation networks of the future.
By 2050, nearly 10 billion people are expected to inhabit the earth, most of them in cities, according to research from the United Nations. Not all of them can have cars, without causing perpetual gridlock—so rideshare will be essential to almost everyone, experts say. And autonomous vehicles are likely to enable the greater the demand for rideshare.
In fact, industry experts have coined a name for the ride-share industry of the not-so-distant future.
It’s known as Mobility as a Service (MaaS). (You may have heard of Software as a Service(Saas)—essentially cloud computing–the concept here is similar.) The industry is likely to reach $10 trillion by 2050, according to reports.
More about MaaS
Instead of selling you new cars, car companies and other providers may soon offer transportation subscriptions plans—you’ll pay by the mile each month for various ways to get around, much as you pay for cable or Netflix or other streaming services now. Only instead of streaming media, you’ll have access to local bikes, scooters, cars, trucks, and taxis.
Since 2018, the city of Helsinki, Finland has been experimenting with MaaS via an app called Whim, which connects customers with a variety of local transportation options, including public transportation, reduced rate taxis, and car share opportunities for tiered monthly subscription rates. Customers have booked about 2 million rides so far, and the app has spread to Antwerp, Vienna, and will soon come to the U.S., according to reports.
You’re also beginning to see changes in ride-share apps. Startups Hyrecar and Turo, for example, let people rent out their automobiles as they would their apartments or homes on Airbnb.
Here’s the thing though: In order for the networks to work as efficiently as possible, autonomous driving will be necessary, according to Bloomberg.
Investment in autonomous vehicles
And nearly every big-name car and tech company is already investing in self-driving vehicles. (Several of their vehicles have been involved with accidents and at least one death.)
- In July 2019 for example, Ford and Volkswagen announced they would cross-pollinate a bit. Volkswagen will invest more than $2 billion in Ford’s autonomous vehicle startup, Argo AI, and Ford will purchase electronic components for the cars from Volkswagen.
- General Motors has spent close to $1 billion on self-driving car research.
- Google parent Alphabet has been testing driverless taxis in Phoenix, and other areas, through its Waymo subsidiary since 2018.
- Uber and Lyft have both set their sights on self-driving cars as a way to improve their business models.
- iPhone and computer maker Apple is developing self-driving car technology, although it has not divulged much information about the program.
MaaS and autonomous car networks all still many years away, experts say. But in the next few years, when you hail a ride with your smartphone, you may no longer see a driver.