Bill Gates is a self-described “car guy,” but he says he’s ready to hand the control over to machines—and predicts that the day is coming “sooner rather than later.” The Microsoft billionaire took a test ride in an AV to showcase the new technology, and said that we are nearly half way to realizing a future with fully autonomous vehicles under all conditions.
“The car drove us around downtown London, which is one of the most challenging driving environments imaginable, and it was a bit surreal to be in the car as it dodged all the traffic,” Gates wrote in a blog post this week with an accompanying video, sounding optimistic about the future of AVs.
The car he rode in was manufactured by Wayve, a British startup that works with Microsoft on its AV capabilities. For his “test ride,” Gates was accompanied by a safety driver, the CEO and co-founder of Wayve, Alex Kendall.
Several auto companies have been working to develop self-driving cars in recent years, including General Motors and Google-parent Alphabet. GM’s Cruise has even been operating its own autonomous cab-hailing service in San Francisco, and recently asked California’s government for permission to test its AVs statewide. Tesla’s cars have long offered drivers the option to use its “Autopilot” feature, which assists with steering or hitting the brakes, although it doesn’t support entirely autonomous driving yet.
“We’ve made tremendous progress on autonomous vehicles, or AVs, in recent years, and I believe we’ll reach a tipping point within the next decade,” Gates wrote. “And if you commute by car like me, just think about how much time you waste driving. You could instead catch up on emails, or read a good book, or watch the new episode of your favorite show—all things that are possible in fully autonomous vehicles.”
The billionaire also has high hopes for what AVs could mean in terms of reducing social inequities if the technology successfully rolled out in the future. Gates thinks AVs will get cheaper over time and improve transport accessibility for elderly and disabled people. And since the bulk of AVs being developed are also electric, he says AVs can also help fight the climate crisis.
But Gates admitted that AVs have a long way to go—perhaps decades—before they become mainstream. But he believes that even after they do, passenger cars will be the last category to go the AV route (trucks would be first, Gates predicted).
A future full of self-driving cars means all the infrastructure that supports them will no longer be necessary, but Gates said that it would be “likely decades” before that kind of transformation happens.
Other concerns surrounding AVs have cropped up in recent years as more such cars are deployed on streets. Earlier this year, Tesla’s vehicles with the experimental “Fully Self-Driving” software were recalled because of their tendency to cause crashes. Tesla’s Autopilot and “Fully Self-Driving” are being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for car crashes in the past. And there have also been concerns about how AV companies no longer require safety drivers to help guide cars through tricky situations on the streets, causing chaos in some cases.
“Even once the technology is perfected, people might not feel comfortable riding in a car without a steering wheel at first. But I believe the benefits will convince them,” Gates wrote in his blog.
Gates has been a big believer of artificial intelligence and its related futuristic technologies, and recently declared that the “age of A.I. is here.” He said he thought OpenAI’s chatbot tool ChatGPT, released last year to great fanfare, was revolutionary and had the potential to effect far-reaching change in healthcare and education.
“Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it,” Gates wrote of A.I. in a blog post earlier this month.