Autos: Self-driving cars are still in the slow lane

Autos: Self-driving cars are still in the slow lane

It’s 2020, so where are our driverless cars? asked Cade Metz and Erin Griffith in The New York Times. This was the year they were supposed to go “mainstream,” but instead “the technology is still far from ready, and many investors are wary of dumping more money into it.” The Covid- 19 pandemic has presented additional roadblocks. Autonomous vehicle (AV) companies “need at least two people in the car to avoid accidents” as they test their tech on the street, but “social-distancing rules” prohibit that. The pandemic has also “hastened an industry shakeout that was already starting to happen.” The typical AV startup spends four times as much as a typical startup in fintech or health care—and has zero revenue.

It’s not just the pandemic, said Roberto Baldwin in Car and Driver. A fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber in 2018 prompted some companies to be “increasingly honest about the challenges.” Nissan, for instance, has “admitted that it’s unlikely to produce self-driving cars before the end of the decade,” while Toyota shifted into a more research-oriented strategy that focuses on accident prevention. “The rush to be first has apparently been replaced with business plans adjusted for profit and long-term development and testing.” Companies are now asking, “How safe is safe enough?”

Much of the business case for self-driving vehicles also depended on a vision of fleets of shared cars that’s now in question, said Jim Motavalli in The New York Times. “The pandemic is making passengers think about the last person to ride in any ride-share vehicle.” That’s wiping away dreams of robo-taxi fleets or picking up cars conveniently left on the road parked and ready for the next driver. “Self-driving cars will remain very unaffordable for a long time,” and if people insist on owning their own vehicles, the financial equation becomes very difficult. 

Covid-19 may have upset some milestones for passenger cars, said Kyle Stock in, but “there’s never been a better time for groceries or medicines delivered by an algorithm on wheels.” In Texas, we’re already seeing robots from Nuro “ferrying groceries” from Kroger. The case for cheaper shipping is stronger than ever; ubiquitous self-driving trucks could “cut at least half the costs from trucking freight.” Big investors haven’t given up, said Eva Xiao in The Wall Street Journal. Waymo, the leader in self-driving tech, just raised $750 million, and Argo AI expects $2.6 billion in new funds from Volkswagen. Pacesetting tech investor SoftBank is pouring $500 million into Chinese shared-ride giant Didi. That “fresh boost in capital” is going right into testing and developing AVs to “compete with well-backed U.S. startups.”