It is easy to get excited about the promises made about autonomous vehicles.  Excited either way, I mean. For or against.

But who do you believe? Someone who promises general availability by 2020 sounds a tad optimistic. (Have you noticed 2017 isn’t mentioned as much any more—this in spite of the fact that some autonomous vehicles are operating in constrained environments already?)

Compare that to someone who promises “the driverless car … will never in my lifetime become a commonplace reality for a list of reasons so long, it would fill a book as fat as the latest Oxford dictionary”, as did Jeremy Cato in Toronto’s Globe and Mail 2015.02.27. In one sentence, Cato virtually guarantees himself to be as wrong as a climate change denier. Of course the latest Oxford dictionary is digital, hence infinitely thin, so he will be right by mistake.

Given these two extremes, it is easy to feel confident that sometime after 2020 and before Cato’s final breath in mid century, the autonomous vehicle will re-write the book on automobility, including public transit, taxis, and car ownership. These impacts will be far greater than those of improved safety, less parking, tamed congestion and reduced sprawl—or will that be renewed sprawl? We don’t seem to be sure.

People, when faced with new-technology ideas generally fit the new technology into their existing mode of thinking (early users of TV technology used it to broadcast radio programmes). Cato who has been reviewing cars for 25 years for handling, styling, traction, and road grip cannot “get” robotics since, for him, robotics are everything that a car is not.  Travis Kalanick (Uber’s CEO) sees the autonomous vehicle as something he can send to a person clicking on a cell phone app–sans driver. Google, one suspects, sees the autonomous vehicle as a way to add an extra Marchetti hour of online shopping for each user, each day. Transit planners trying to increase ridership while struggling with the costs of maintaining big bumbling buses and growing labor and pension costs see AVs as a potential solution.  Mom, who uses the car in the driveway to take little Bobby to hockey imagines the same car doing that without her behind the wheel—or rather she imagines grown-up Bobby having a car in his driveway to take Mom’s granddaughter to ballet while Bobby stays home to watch hockey.

See all the status-quo thinking? And all the same stereotypes? Status quo thinking for the robotic vehicle is that they will be used just as we use non-robotic vehicles. We will own them as we own cars now. We will keep them in our driveways and garages. We will use then for all the same reasons and in all the same ways.  If not, then as presumably suits Cato’s job as a automotive fashion reviewer, no thanks.

The greatest challenge we face is not the last million man-years of AI engineering remaining to plug all the final holes for level 4 autonomy: driving in snow, avoiding a mattresses in the road, deciding between driving off a cliff and running over a pedestrian and the rest of Cato’s “fat Oxford dictionary full”.  The greatest challenge we face is to create and manage shared fleets that 90% of us would prefer to use rather than another albatross to keep in the garage and store our golf clubs in. And that means saying good-bye to the cars we own, the taxis we hail, and the buses we hate.

But that will not happen just becasue it makes good economic or environmental sense.