Self-Driving Cars: Here’s When They’ll Be a Normal Thing

The self-driving car revolution is gaining speed—and will change our everyday lives in ways big and small.

In recent weeks, announcements from technology companies, governments, and carmakers have accelerated the inevitable transition to safer, more sustainable, and more efficient transportation systems. While this transition may take longer than industry leaders hope, its eventual impact on society is hard to overstate.

For starters, lives will be saved. The World Health Organization estimates that there were about 1.25 million traffic fatalities worldwide in 2013. Self-driving cars will eliminate human error and distraction, a major cause of those accidents. We’ll also have more free time (albeit in a car). According to the U.S. Census, the average American commutes more than 26 minutes each way, or 500 days spent commuting per lifetime. In an autonomous car, we’ll be able to use this time for work or leisure. Finally, consumers will save money as autonomous ride-sharing fleets reduce the cost of transportation.

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So, when will we be able to enjoy the benefits of a self-driving car? Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims that we are two years away from “sleeping in our cars.” Kyle Vogt, CEO of General Motors-owned Cruise Automation, announced this week that GM has built “the world’s first mass-producible car designed to operate without a driver” based on the Chevrolet Bolt. However, even Vogt acknowledges that GM is waiting on improvements in self-driving software and legislation to make his vision a reality.

Today, 99.9% of all vehicles on the road do not have the technology to enable full autonomy. Self-driving cars won’t hit our roads in a noticeable way until 2020. But by 2040, we estimate that 95% of new vehicles sold, or 96.3 million cars, will be fully autonomous—a $3.6 trillion opportunity.

Big opportunities draw big competition. Tech companies that pride themselves on expertly integrating hardware and software (the basic ingredients of a…

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