Self Driving Cars: Now or Later?
At the beginning of the 21st century, futurists predicted that by 2010, we’d have flying cars. Queue the crickets… But with all the current buzz surrounding the next automobile revolution – self driving vehicles – timelines and predictions are looking much more realistic and optimistic – for the most part.
Take Aurora, the self driving car start-up co-founded by Chris Urmson, the former foreman for Google’s self driving car project “Waymo”. According to a few people close to the project, venture capital firm Sequoia Capital is expected to inject 500 million into Aurora, which would value the startup at more than 2 billion. Although founded only 3 years ago, Aurora is already competing with the ranks of giants like Ford, Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Uber in the race for self driving technology.
With tons of capital being invested in this sector of AI, companies are becoming increasingly pressured to release their anticipated schedules for important automation milestones. The main way in which huge car moguls hope to profit from this technology is through ride hailing apps, who will no longer have to pay the driver. GM bought 9% of Lyft for 500 million in order to prepare for this future profit opportunity, and although they haven’t yet disclosed a specific timeline, their CEO has stated that they envision their first autonomous vehicles to be on mass production assembly lines in the near future. Similarly, Ford has invested a billion dollars in Argo AI to support their advancements in self driving technology. Ford CEO Mark Fields gave more specific dates than GM: Fields told CNBC that Ford plans to have fully autonomous vehicles (no steering wheels or pedals) by the year 2021. Many other giants such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan have stated that they plan to have their cars capable of autonomous driving on highways by the year 2020.
Perhaps the biggest source of optimism amidst this discussion is, unsurprisingly, Tesla. Although there has recently been a lot of volatility and uncertainty surrounding the company’s financial standings, all their cars already have the hardware to incorporate a fully automated self driving system. Currently, their “advanced autopilot” capability matches traffic speed, keep within lanes, changes lanes without driver input, exits and enters freeways and parks itself. Their cars are still fully equipped to be driven by human drivers; regulatory barriers and the relative early age of this software forces Tesla to disclose that all drivers are responsible to be alert and must be “prepared to take action at any time”.
But not everyone is as impressed by the prospect of self driving cars. Many major car companies aren’t as eager to make the leap. Mark Del Rosso, president and CEO of Bentley Motors, said he has not yet had a customer demand an autonomous vehicle. He later said that “It has to become a want and a need and a desire” for his customers before going any further. Del Rosso, also serving as the president of Audi, said his main goal at the moment was to “educate policymakers” about solving the looming safety problems of self driving vehicles. Furthermore, Tesla’s stock plummeting from $379 per share in August 2018 down to $250 just two months later in October may be a sign that the technology has yet to reach the expectations of investors. Tesla also recently recalled 123,000 Model S sedans because of faulty steering systems, which paired with the infamous fatal crash of one of its Model X cars using advanced autopilot in March 2018, is an overall bad look for the unofficial leader in the race for vehicle automation.
Currently, the most advanced form of vehicle automation on the market is “level 3 automation,” or “conditional automation” (Tesla’s previously mentioned advanced autopilot falls into this category). With this level of autonomy, cars can complete entire trips without any human intervention, but level 3 automation also means that drivers must always be alert and ready to take the wheel in case the car is unable to properly adapt to a situation. Many notable carmakers, such as Toyota and Volvo, have vocalized their skepticism about this level of automation, and argue that it is in their best interest to skip to level 4 or level 5 automation, where no human input is ever necessary. Level 4 and 5 automation, however, will take more time to develop and safely enter the market.
This raises a few questions looking forward: will the long term winners of this race for automation be the companies, like Tesla, with a greater sense of urgency, or rather the Del Rosso’s of the industry, who take a safer, more patient approach? In these competitive times, carmakers and AI companies must weigh out the short term profit opportunities that go along with being at the head of the race, but also the risks involved with moving too fast with self driving technology, which objectively is quite young in age.
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Written by Jeremy Kattan & Edited by Alexander Fleiss