The hype cycle of self-driving cars is once again in a depressing decline. Last week, Tesla boss Elon Musk admitted that full self-driving software wasn’t ready to be used without someone behind the wheel. Mobileye, Intel’s autonomous drive unit, lowered its valuation estimate from $50 billion to $16 billion. Multiple media outlets have published stories mocking the industry for its shortcomings after billions of dollars of investment.
The strange thing is that all this happened the moment robotaxis takes to the streets of San Francisco. For about $10 you can grab a driverless car from the famous Painted Ladies in Alamo Square to the bars of Nob Hill, watching from the back seat as the steering wheel turns itself to maneuver the car through traffic.
The test program was launched by Cruise, an autonomous vehicle company majority-owned by General Motors. Like Uber, it has an app that lets you call a car to meet you. Prices are also comparable, although presumably the rides should be cheaper when it launches.
It’s unsettling to see a driverless car stop next to you and listen as a robotic voice tells you to buckle up and enjoy your ride. But every journey I’ve taken has been perfectly smooth. The cars are careful drivers when they see obstacles, which is very reassuring for nervous passengers. This may also be the reason why there have been reports of cars getting stuck in the road and blocking traffic. After a crash with a speeding vehicle, Cruise recalled his robot axis and updated the software. It now plans to expand the scheme to Austin and Phoenix.
Calling on a driverless car to get from one part of the city to another feels like living in the future. It can sometimes seem like all the money in technology is poured into digital advertising, cryptocurrencies and consumer apps. If you live in San Francisco long enough, your phone is packed with apps for every convenience imaginable. But autonomous vehicles, an ambitious, difficult and potentially life-changing sector, offer a more tangible example of technical progress.
It has, of course, been an insanely expensive undertaking. McKinsey estimated the total amount invested since 2010 at more than $100 billion. Last year alone, financing in autonomous vehicle companies exceeded $12 billion, according to CB Insights.
Development has also been much slower than expected. The dream of self-driving cars has been around almost as long as the car itself. The modern era dates back to Google’s self-driving project, now Waymo, which began in 2009. By the time I arrived in San Francisco in 2018, it seemed like driverless cars would be on every road within a few months. Uber claimed it would soon phase out human drivers while Waymo and Lyft launched robotic axi schemes in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Everyone from SoftBank to Apple invested in autonomous vehicles.
Since then, however, the industry’s fortunes have declined. In the same year, an Uber self-driving car killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona. The tests were halted and optimism collapsed. Two years later, Uber sold its self-driving car to local start-up Aurora.
The challenge remains great. Self-driving cars don’t just need to control the mechanics of a vehicle, they need to understand the world around them and make quick decisions as conditions change. There is also still no consensus on how they should work. Cruise maps the roads he drives by combining road data collected by both cameras and lidar – laser-based sensors. Tesla has called lidar a “crutch”.
If it were possible to build the infrastructure for self-driving cars from scratch, it would be easier. Roads are busy and messy. They are full of various users making irrational decisions. Cars must not only see the obstacle in front of them, but know if it is about to move and, if so, in what direction.
Cruise’s robotic axi test is fairly conservative. The cars can only drive between 22:00 and 05:30. If I want to show visitors the wonders of autonomous vehicles, I have to wait at night and make sure I’m in the right part of town.
Still, the money keeps coming. Either driverless cars are an example of sunk cost fallacy or their slow start is not seen as a barrier to eventual adoption. Uber has struck a deal with Motional – the start-up partnering with Lyft to offer autonomous driving in Vegas. Cariad, Volkswagen’s automotive software subsidiary, is investing $2 billion in a partnership with Chinese chipmaker Horizon Robotics. Waymo plans to expand its robotic axis service to Los Angeles, and Cruise hopes to gain regulatory approval for robot axis without pedals or steering wheels.
It has been a slow and expensive road. It could be years before the cars are widespread. But for many of the largest companies in the world, driverless vehicles are still unavoidable.