Self-driving cars occupy the cultural space once dominated by flying cars. Both are a kind of shorthand for “the future.” But while flying cars have become a symbol of a technological promise left unrealized, driverless cars are widely believed to be inevitable in the coming decades.
Leading tech companies say that bringing a fully autonomous car to the market is, in the words of the Tesla CEO Elon Musk, “a super high priority,” but it’s hard to know from the outside what most businesses are actually doing to get there. Google is unusually transparent about its work with driverless vehicles: Members of the company’s self-driving-car project frequently blog about their efforts, publicly release monthly progress reports that include accident statistics, and routinely agree to interviews about how and why Google’s philosophy on driverlessness has changed over time.
But in the fiercely competitive world of self-driving cars, Google’s strategy is the exception. Apple and Uber, both intensely secretive about their work on driverless cars, are the rule. “Apple’s aways been a very closed culture—and you have to believe that’s served them well, from a business standpoint,” said Larry Burns, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and a former General Motors executive who also serves as an advisor to Google. “But unlike a laptop computer, a car is a public-private good. A car drives on public roadways. A car has a side effect.”