Self-driving cars should change the world. We’re still waiting – CNN | CarTailz

Washington, D.C
CNN business

For over a decade, companies from Google to General Motors have poured billions of dollars into the quest for what is considered the holy grail of driving technology: the fully self-driving car. Such vehicles would usher in an era of consumer safety and convenience, experts promised, and would be an immensely valuable product for automakers.

But recently, many of the key players in the autonomous vehicle game have scaled back or given up their high ambitions altogether. Last week Ford and Volkswagen pulled the plug on their self-driving effort, Argo AI, the latest admission from a hype-fuelled industry that building a good self-driving car that’s also a profitable business may not happen any time soon.

Bryan Salesky, CEO and co-founder of Argo AI, was part of a famous team from Carnegie Mellon University that developed a primitive self-driving vehicle that won a Pentagon race in 2007.

Four students on the team later founded self-driving companies that have since raised billions: Salesky, the founder of Argo; Dave Ferguson at Nuro; and Drew Bagnell and Chris Urmson at the Uber-backed Aurora.

“We started this stuff because it was cool and a nice idea, but we weren’t quite sure how it would be used,” Salesky said in a 2019 interview.

The team’s self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe caught the attention of Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who in 2009 started a self-driving car program, later named Waymo, that jump-started an industry. Competitors like Uber jumped in, fearing that being phased out of autonomous driving would destroy their company’s future. (Uber launched its program in 2015 before selling it in 2020 after a costly legal battle with Alphabet.)

General Motors bought a self-driving company in 2016. Ford followed suit a year later with Argo AI. Uber rushed to bring in engineers from Salesky’s alma mater Carnegie Mellon.

McKinsey estimates that more than $10 billion has been invested in self-driving cars since 2010.

Proponents of autonomous driving believed they were on to something big. Driving is the deadliest of all modes of transport and a leading cause of death for many age groups. More Americans have died in traffic accidents than have fought in all their wars.

Investors raved about the potential to make billions while saving millions of lives.

This business would be huge, they said. “$7 trillion if autonomous vehicles go mainstream,” Intel claimed.

Urmson, who led Google’s self-driving car project before founding Aurora, said his teenage son never had to get a driver’s license. Optimism spread.

Why would anyone even own a car? Autonomous taxis would even be cheaper than walking, an industry analyst said.

“Autonomous vehicles are able to acquire new skills faster than humans,” Salesky said in 2021.

But there was a problem. Technology could do amazing things, but it’s difficult to cope with all the situations we face as human drivers. In some situations, the billions invested in technology could not drive better than a human being.

That’s been a problem for the long list of companies setting aggressive targets for self-driving cars. General Motors promised in 2017 to mass produce fully autonomous vehicles in 2019. Lyft said in 2016 that half of its trips would be self-driving by 2021. Ford also spoke up for 2021, promising fully self-driving vehicles that will see widespread adoption.

But there’s a fun saying from the software world that’s known as the 90-90 rule. When 90% of the work is done, only 90% remains. The ability of self-driving car software to steer the vehicle on a freeway lane is great, but being able to do so for thousands of miles at a time is not enough. A self-driving car without a steering wheel or pedals would have to be able to drive itself in literally every possible situation.

With millions of kilometers driven by people every day, the number of tricky and unusual situations that are called borderline cases is enormous. Unusual events are individually unusual by definition. But the sheer number of unusual events faced by millions of drivers around the world means that “unusual events” are fairly common.

“It’s really, really hard,” Waymo’s then-CEO John Krafcik said of the self-driving technology in 2018. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you’re actually in there trying to do things.”

Industry leaders have pulled back from their big claims. Waymo has said it will be decades before the technology is widely available around the world.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is now largely alone for sticking to aggressive predictions. He’s said every year since 2017 that software capable of full self-driving will likely come to market in “next year.” However, the software has not arrived. Instead, the company is coming under increasing scrutiny from regulators for its big talk. It is being investigated for tailgating emergency vehicles stopped on streets and at times appeared unable to identify motorcycles.

In recent years, many industry leaders have tacitly acknowledged their business plan and tried to optimize it. Urmson and Bagnell shifted to developing self-driving trucks that travel primarily on freeways, which are much easier to navigate.

Ferguson left Google’s self-driving car project to start a company that builds fully autonomous vehicles without a person inside to deliver goods. It’s a much easier challenge as you don’t have to worry about protecting the people in the vehicles. Even Google itself has started working on self-driving trucks.

Companies developing lidar, which is widely regarded as a key component for self-driving vehicles, as well as self-driving companies have seen their share prices plummet recently.

Lidar companies Velodyne, Quanergy, Luminar, and Ouster have all seen their stocks shrink this year. Autonomous truck companies Aurora, TuSimple, and Embark have also all seen major falls this year.

Tesla, which has promised “full self-driving” for years, has delivered a less ambitious driver-assistance feature that some appreciate, but it’s also a beta product with plenty of room for improvement. It also faces several government probes related to the technology.

Only VW and Ford’s Argo AI and GM’s Cruise continued to focus solely on true self-driving cars.

Now only one of them is left.

Cruise offers passengers some overnight rides in San Francisco.

GM’s Cruise operates a nightly ridehail service in San Francisco making 84 trips in June, 224 in July and 416 in August. (Driving during the day is much more difficult as there is more traffic, including pedestrians and bicyclists.) Fares are similar to riding an Uber or Lyft.

Cruise lost $1.4 billion this year and can’t stand losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a trip forever. There are plans to expand the service to offer rides in Austin and Phoenix later this year.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said last week that “next year marks the beginning of our rapid scaling phase.”

There will be many kinks to resolve. The local government has raised safety and traffic concerns about Cruise’s expansion plans.

Some longtime industry watchers warn that self-driving technology still has a long way to go, a line of thinking echoed by Ford CEO Jim Farley on Wednesday.

“Things have changed,” Farley said of Ford’s 2017 plans to roll out self-driving cars by 2021.

The company is instead focusing on advanced driver assistance technology.

Aside from Tesla, automakers largely rely on Mobileye, an Israeli tech company, for driver assistance technology. Intel spun off Mobileye last week, raising $861 million. The successful IPO suggests there’s still a robust market for driver-assistance technology, even if it lags behind fully autonomous vehicles.

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