Autonomous vehicles: Moonshot or reality?
After more than a decade of moonshots, reality is setting in for the autonomous vehicle market.
The Future Laboratory / L:SN Global, Opinion, February 2023 (link)
‘To a large degree, the automotive companies did drink the Kool Aid ’
— Paris Marx, author, Road To Nowhere
Behind the scenes of the automotive industry, a correction is afoot: the hype and heat and promise of the fully autonomous vehicle is cooling. Tesla continues to face mass recalls and regulatory issues surrounding the safety of its self-described ‘Fully Self-Driving’ software; layoffs are hitting the autonomous vehicle technology sector at companies like the Google-affiliated Waymo; and at recent new car launches, even the most future-focused automakers have gone suspiciously quiet on the AV-front.
Perhaps most telling is the presence, or lack thereof, of autonomous driving technology at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Formally the epicenter of futuristic robotaxi-like concepts, the technology took a backseat as automotive OEMs covertly shifted their focus towards electrification, battery tech, supply chain solutions, entertainment and urban mobility ideas —solutions and concepts with more realistic outcomes and short-term payoffs.
All of this comes just months after the shuttering of Ford and Volkswagen Group-backed AV company, Argo. This, according to reports, was due to its inability to attract new investors and a failure to meet expectations of bringing AV technology to public roads by 2021. AI critics and programmers have long warned that Level 5 self-driving technology is further away than Silicon Valley likes to admit and to those working in legacy automotive, one of the most heavily regulated and safety-prioritised industries in the world, the Emperor being naked all along does not come as a shock.
Where did it go wrong? ‘To a large degree, the automotive companies did drink the Kool Aid,’ says Paris Marx, host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast and author of Road To Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation (Verso). ‘Largely, I think a lot of these auto companies saw the tech industry moving in the direction of autonomous vehicles in particular, and felt the need to follow along because there was a lot of hype and excitement around it.’
Eventually, however, the industry realized it too was caught up in the Silicon Valley vapourware style of promising first, delivering later, which continues to trap naive investors. This is ultimately a lesson in trust, expertise and investor expectations, and eventually has seen the moonshots clash with the realities of safety, reliability, regulatory pressures and global mass adoption and consumer needs.
For frenzied investors chasing down the next TESLA, the slow speed at which the automotive industry moves due to regulations has become a tension point. It hasn’t helped anyone that the pressure of achieving full self-driving also arrived in tandem with electrification, supply chain issues, environmental and government mandates and essentially, a complete, once-in-a-lifetime overhaul of the personal car from top to tyre. A recent report by McKinsey Centre for Future Mobility has revealed that there has been more than £442.5bn ($530bn, €500bn) invested in AV technology, electrification and shared mobility since 2010, yet only six per cent of that came from the automakers themselves. Bargain? Or a red flag? Regardless, the race continues.
The difference is now, automakers are more comfortable admitting that Level 5 autonomy may never be globally viable. Most, such as Mercedes-Benz, are now settling on the consolation prize of achieving Level 4 - fully self driving, but only within a limited or geofenced area - by the end of the decade. By managing consumer and investor expectations and communicating the limits that will exist in the car of the future, more realistic scenarios surrounding how we will engage with our cars can be considered, including the role of in-car VR, AR and other forms of connected entertainment; interior design innovation and personalisation.
So while the futuristic dream of a personal robot chauffeur might not happen anytime soon, a robo-valet will have to do. And besides, the latest hype from Silicon Valley insists cars are out and electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVOTL) are in, anyway. At least for now.