What Coronavirus mean for the future of self-driving cars

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It’s 2025 and driverless cars still aren’t zooming around everywhere. Where are the chilled out passengers on their phones, or napping, as an invisible “driver” navigates a crowded intersection?

 They’re still mostly stuck in the backseat as a human driver shuttles them around. They’re likely in a highly automated and autonomous-capable vehicle, but a human is still there monitoring the machine. That doesn’t mean robo-vehicles aren’t on the road. Instead they’re working behind the scenes. They’re picking up our groceries, filling trucks with our endless online shopping purchases, and hauling crates of produce across the country.

The pandemic made us more comfortable with the idea of autonomous vehicles, but most industry experts still predict a slow transition to their widespread adoption in the U.S. When you’re avoiding exposure to a deadly disease, perhaps a driverless robotaxi, like the Waymo One service in suburban Phoenix, looks more attractive. But autonomous tech and testing regulations won’t accelerate just because of sudden mainstream acceptance and new social distancing norms.

Motional, the new brand from self-driving startup Aptiv and Hyundai, asked just over 1,000 U.S. adults in July about autonomous vehicle (AV) perception. More than 60 percent said AVs “are the way of the future.” A quarter of those surveyed said they are interested in experiencing the tech regularly. A year ago, the American Automobile Association (AAA) surveyed a similarly sized group of Americans and found 71 percent were afraid to ride in a self-driving car. (Note: How the two groups’ demographics compare is unknown.)

The next five years will likely continue to shift and refocus how we think about self-driving technology. While self-driving ride-shares won’t be the norm, more people will have experienced autonomy on the road. Motional CEO Karl Iagnemma thinks that by 2025, “if you haven’t taken a driverless journey you will know someone who has.”

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