A new reality check on self-driving cars

Some carmakers and tech companies say they're preparing to deliver self-driving cars to consumers within just a few years, a fresh promise that makes it seem like 2016 again. But beware the hype.

Why it matters: Your car might be capable of driving itself in the not-too-distant future, but only under certain conditions, like favorable weather or within certain geographic limits. And the timetable is squishy at best.

  • Safety experts fear that the companies' pronouncements could build unrealistic expectations or — worse — prompt consumers to leave too much of the driving to their automobiles.

Driving the news: Up until now, the industry has been working mostly on robotaxis and self-driving trucks for commercial service. But at the annual Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, three companies teased plans for when your own car might be able to drive itself.

  • General Motors CEO Mary Barra said GM aims to deliver its first autonomous vehicle for personal use "as soon as mid-decade."

  • Chinese automaker Geely said it's working with Intel-owned Mobileye to have a consumer-ready AV by 2024.

  • Volvo plans to introduce "unsupervised" automated driving as an add-on subscription, but didn't say when the feature would debut.

What to watch: Details for each are sparse, but experts say the automated highway driving system Volvo described this week, Ride Pilot, is likely what we can expect from others as well.

  • Ride Pilot will go beyond current driver-assistance systems like GM's SuperCruise or even Tesla's (mislabeled) "full self-driving" (FSD) beta technology, which require drivers to pay attention.

  • That means drivers will be able to relax, read a book or work while the car handles the driving on certain stretches of highway.

  • Volvo, and not the human driver, will be responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle when the system is engaged.

Volvo says it plans to introduce Ride Pilot in California "once it has been verified as safe for use." The carmaker has applied for an autonomous test permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and will begin testing there in mid-2022.

  • The hardware and software (from Luminar and Zenseact) will come standard on Volvo's next-generation electric SUV, launching in 2023, but Ride Pilot won't be functional initially.

  • "We're not going to turn it on until we know that it's safe," Odgard Andersson, CEO of Zenseact, tells Axios.

The bottom line: Customers should expect to pay a premium for an automated driving subscription, based on the escalating price of Tesla's FSD system, which promises full self-driving capability — some day.

  • "There's a clear market for it," Mike Ramsey, Transportation and Mobility Analyst at Gartner, tells Axios.

  • "If Tesla is shaking people down for $10,000, and now $12,000, for a feature that only sort of works, clearly other companies can do it too."