Pennsylvania regulators this week gave the nod to Aurora, an autonomous vehicle software company, to begin testing its prototypes on state roads, joining a growing list of states, from Alabama to Washington and, of course, California, that have approved public testing.
Hundreds of self-driving vehicles are now plying U.S. roadways, and the numbers could climb into the thousands, perhaps even the hundreds of thousands, now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has updated guidelines, easing federal oversight in a bid to encourage automakers and tech companies like Aurora and Alphabet's Waymo to speed up development.
"Our country is on the verge of one of the most exciting innovations in transportation," said Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last month, speaking from Mcity, an autonomous vehicle test center operated by the University of Michigan.
Just a week earlier, the House of Representatives, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, passed its version of the SELF DRIVE Act, which could result in as many as 100,000 self-driving cars taking to the road by 2021 or 2022, depending on how soon the Senate moves on its version of the bill.
By then, several automakers, include Tesla, Nissan and General Motors, as well as Waymo, already hope to be either selling self-driving vehicles or at least using them in commercial ride-sharing services. Those services will need to find people willing to go along for the ride. And that may prove more difficult than the industry might hope — a potentially serious problem considering that, by various estimates, spending on autonomous technology will run as high as $100 billion over the coming decade.
Waymo has been running a pilot program in the Phoenix area and earlier this year won approval from the state to turn it into a commercial venture. It has contracted with Jaguar and Fiat Chrysler to purchase as many as 60,000 vehicles over the coming years, with a goal of expanding the service to a number of other, as yet-unidentified U.S. cities.
General Motors is planning to put a self-driving version of its Chevrolet Bolt EV into fleet testing in 2019. For those who prefer something a little more exotic, French automaker Renault revealed a driverless concept, dubbed EZ-Ultimo, at the Paris Motor Show last week. Measuring 224 inches nose-to-tail, or only slightly smaller than a conventional Mercedes-Maybach Pullman limousine, Ultimo is designed to be a "rolling palace," said Renault, where passengers sit in a circle and enjoy the amenities of a lounge on wheels.
A study released at the beginning of the year by the Boston Consulting Group estimated that by the end of the next decade, fully 20 to 25 percent of the miles that Americans travel by car will be logged by fully driverless vehicles operated by ride-sharing services such as Waymo, Uber, Lyft and GM's Maven.