Driverless car revolution stuck in slow lane

The hype cycle of driverless cars is on another disappointing downhill. Last week, Tesla boss Elon Musk admitted that complete self-driving software would not be ready for use without someone behind the wheel. Mobileye, Intel’s autonomous driving unit, cut its valuation expectation from $50 billion to $16 billion. Many media outlets have published stories mocking the sector for its failures after billions of dollars of investment.

The strange thing is that all this happened as soon as the robot ran through the streets of San Francisco. For $10 or more, you can catch a driverless car from the famous Painted Ladies on Alamo Square to the bars of Nob Hill, watching from the back seat as the wheels spin to steer the car past. traffic flow.

The pilot scheme was launched by Cruise, a self-driving car company largely owned by General Motors. Like Uber, it has an app that you can use to hail a ride to meet you. Prices are similar, though perhaps trips would be cheaper if it took off.

It’s embarrassing to see a driverless car pulls to your side and listens when a robotic voice tells you to fasten your seat belt and enjoy your ride. But every journey I have been on has been completely smooth. Drivers are cautious when detecting obstacles, which is reassuring for anxious passengers. This may also be the reason why there have been reports of cars getting stuck on the road and causing traffic jams. After a collision with a speeding car, Cruise recalled his robotics engineering and updated the software. It now plans to expand this plan to Austin and Phoenix.

Self-driving a driverless car to go from one part of town to another, feels like living in the future. It can sometimes seem like all the money in the tech sector is being poured into digital advertising, cryptocurrencies, and consumer applications. Having lived in San Francisco long enough, your phone will be filled with apps for every conceivable convenience. But autonomous vehicles, an ambitious, difficult and potentially life-changing field, offer a clearer example of technological advancement.

Of course, it was an extremely expensive endeavor. McKinsey has brought its total investment capital to more than $100 billion since 2010. Last year alone, investment in autonomous vehicle companies exceeded $12 billion, according to CB Insights.

Development was also much slower than expected. The dream of driverless cars has been around for as long as the automobile itself. The modern era can be traced back to Google’s self-driving car project, now Waymo, which began in 2009. By the time I arrived in San Francisco in 2018, it seemed that driverless cars would certainly be there. on every street in a few months. Uber announced that it will soon phase out human drivers while Waymo and Lyft are rolling out robotaxi programs in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Everyone from SoftBank to Apple has invested in self-driving cars.

Since then, however, the industry’s fortunes have waned. That 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 driverless car unit to local startup Aurora.

The challenge remains substantial. Driverless cars must not only control the mechanics of a vehicle, but also understand the world around them and make quick decisions as circumstances change. There is still no consensus on how they work. Cruise maps the roads it drives by mixing road data collected by both the camera and lidar – laser-based sensors. Tesla called the lidar “a crutch”.

If it is possible to build the infrastructure for driverless cars, things will be simpler. The roads are busy and chaotic. They are full of different users making irrational decisions. The car must not only see the obstacle ahead, but also know if it is about to move and, if so, in which direction to go.

Cruise’s robotaxi test is a rather conservative one. Vehicles can only run between 10pm and 5:30am. If I want to show tourists the wonders of autonomous vehicles, I have to wait at night and make sure I’m in the right part of the city.

However, the money kept coming. Driverless cars are an example of the sunk cost fallacy or that their slow launch should not be seen as an obstacle to eventual adoption. Uber has signed a deal with Motional, a startup that works with Lyft to provide self-driving rides in Vegas. Volkswagen’s automotive software subsidiary Cariad is investing $2 billion in a partnership with Chinese chipmaker Horizon Robotics. Waymo is planning to expand its robotaxi service to Los Angeles, and Cruise hopes to get regulatory approval for robotaxi without pedals or a steering wheel.

It’s a slow and expensive path. It may still be many years before cars become widely available. But for many of the biggest companies in the world, driverless vehicles are still inevitable.

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