Analysis: Don't expect many old cars with new self-driving tech

February 14, 2017

Automakers may be keen to build cars driven by people or, in the future, cars that can drive themselves—but not necessarily both.

That’s per congressional testimony from automakers, and a recent announcement by Ford that it would invest $1 billion in tech firm Argo AI for its autonomous vehicle development.

Argo’s chief Bryan Salesky said this month in the announcement that adapting self-driving technology to existing models was more difficult and more expensive than building autonomous vehicles from the ground up. That's because adding redundant systems for driver controls and self-driving controls would add complexity and cost, and that getting radars, cameras, and sensors for self-driving cars to talk with existing electrical systems could be difficult, the company said.

MORE: What are the different levels of self-driving cars?

Ford CEO Mark Shields added during the call that the company was building a new platform for their self-driving car, which would arrive in 2020. Whether that car could hand-off driving duties to a human hasn't been made clear.

Representatives from Volvo, Toyota, and General Motors told a House committee Feb. 12 that technology for self-driving cars could add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost so far, and that only automakers or ride-sharing services could absorb those costs at the turn of the decade. They added that most automakers would consider skipping SAE Level 3 autonomy, which would require driver intervention and constant supervision, and move to Level 4, which wouldn’t require driver controls.

READ MORE: Uber's autonomous car fleet

Although Volvo has committed that it would introduce a Level 4 version of its XC90 SUV by 2021, and a company spokesman confirmed that the car could hand off driving controls to a human, the Swedish automaker is so far in the minority.

Unlike Level 4 cars, Level 3 cars would require multiple redundant systems for driver and autonomous systems.

Other automakers have seemed to indicate that fully self-driving cars would be based on new platforms, or cars that haven’t yet arrived.

Automakers agreed that over time the technology required for self-driving cars would go down considerably, but that would be 10 to 15 years after the first driverless cars started roaming city streets.  

In other words, it sounds like these cars will drive themselves or let you drive, but perhaps not both.

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