Here’s Where the Self-Driving Car Stands Right Now

Mobility is becoming a service you order from an app rather than an expensive machine you buy and park.

The race to build self-driving cars accelerates.

The race to get humans to give up the wheel is picking up speed. Self-driving cars have rapidly moved from science fiction to actual fact and will start hitting the road within five years.

After seven years and more than 2 million miles of road testing, Google’s self-driving car project was spun off from parent Alphabet Inc. this week and renamed itself Waymo, which stands for "a new way forward in mobility," according to John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive officer.

Waymo’s autonomous technology, which uses sensors and processors to drive a car without human input, will be sold commercially for a variety of uses, Krafcik said. For example, Waymo plans to start a ride-sharing service with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' minivans as early as the end of 2017, according to people familiar with the matter. But the tech company won’t actually build cars.

QuickTake Driverless Cars

"We’re not in the business of making better cars," Krafcik said at the Dec. 13 announcement, "we’re in the business of making better drivers."

Plenty of carmakers are getting ready to build their own driverless cars. Tesla Motors Inc., BMW, Ford Motor Co., and Volvo Cars have all promised to have fully autonomous cars on the road within five years. General Motors Co., Daimler AG, Toyota Motor Corp., and Volkswagen AG’s Audi luxury line are pouring billions of dollars into developing autonomous vehicles. They all want a piece of the emerging autonomous business that Boston Consulting Group says will increase to $42 billion by 2025 and account for a quarter of global sales by 2035.

The technology is expected to transform transportation as mobility becomes a service you order from an app, rather than an expensive machine you buy and mostly store in a parking space. It also could drastically reduce urban congestion and dramatically reduce, or even eliminate, the 1.25 million road deaths a year globally. Human error is the cause of 94 percent of roadway fatalities, U.S. safety regulators say, and robot drivers never get drunk, sleepy, or distracted. There are still technological challenges. A driver died while using the semi-autonomous autopilot feature on a Tesla Model S in May, when a truck turned in front of him and sensors failed to detect it.

A glimpse of the future can be seen in Pittsburgh, where Uber Technologies Inc. has begun a test using autonomous Volvo sport-utility vehicles as robot taxis. Auto supplier Delphi Automotive PLC and startup NuTonomy Inc. have robo-taxi tests going in Singapore. NuTonomy is expanding its autonomous taxi service to public roads in Boston this month.

(Updates to add information about technological challenges.)

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