November 12, 2023

Today's Topics

Good morning! When Hollywood portrays the future, two of its go-to tropes are AI-powered robots and self-driving cars. But, nearly a year on from ChatGPT’s seminal public launch — and with headlines about new AI tools and bots dominating the tech sections of news outlets on an almost daily basis — we’re asking: where’s my self-driving car?

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Hands off the wheel

It’s not unreasonable to have expected some major breakthroughs in self-driving cars (autonomous vehicles or AVs) in the same year that AI “went mainstream” — they are, of course, deeply intertwined technologies. Indeed, the only way we’re going to get the ability to sit back while our car drives us safely to our destination, is with the development of AI — along with an array of sensors, cameras, and radar systems.

But, it may feel like progress has stalled in recent years. Indeed, just this week, the AV giant Cruise began laying off contingent workers who supported its driverless fleet. The layoffs follow a recall of 950 of its self-driving vehicles in response to an incident from October in which a pedestrian was hit into the path of a Cruise car by a human driver, and then dragged some 20 feet by the self-driving vehicle as it attempted to pull over.

The word “recall” in this context actually refers to a software update, which the company says would have kept the Cruise AV stationary after the incident had it been in effect, but the California DMV had already suspended Cruise’s driverless permits in light of the October crash.

The logic of the Cruise vehicle was to get out of the way of other oncoming traffic, presumably to avoid another potential accident. Of course, with a pedestrian entangled with the vehicle, that’s clearly not the “desired post-collision response”.

Trolley problems

Although in this case there seems to be room for improved software, the incident raises the classic ethical dilemma for AV scientists and researchers: in the event of an unavoidable accident, how should software “prioritize” the safety of humans? Should it first check if there is anyone that looks like a child, or a vulnerable individual, at risk, and prioritize their safety? Should it prioritize the passengers in the car, or people outside of the vehicle? How should it “think" about animals — is it okay to swerve to avoid a cat running across a road if it creates a 1% chance of causing an accident? What about a 5% chance? How long should it take to work all of this out if it needs to act quickly?

These questions — part of a wider set of thought experiments often referred to as "trolley problems" — clearly don't have perfect answers, and remain a sticking point for engineers, designers... and the wider public. Indeed, a survey from Pew Research Center found that, when asked whether self-driving cars should prioritize those in or out of the vehicle, a whopping 41% said they weren’t sure, 40% said the passengers of the vehicle itself and 18% said those outside of the car.

Waymore miles

Cruise's difficulties are undoubtedly a setback for the industry — and Cruise’s owner General Motors — but it's important to get some perspective on all of the progress that has been made. According to reports filed with California’s DMV, autonomous vehicles racked up nearly 5.7 million miles of driving last year. The vast majority, 5.1 million or so, were done with a safety driver present, in case of the need to intervene. Cruise managed the second most miles, but it was Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google (Alphabet), that reported the most mileage in its report: an astonishing ~2.9 million miles.

For context on just how far that is, it’s roughly equivalent to driving from LA to New York and back again, more than 500 times. Other leaders in the industry that racked up significant mileage included Zoox, and Apple — the latter of which continues to work on AV technology in its typically secretive fashion.

Tesla is the other major player in self-driving technology in the US, but the company defines its FSD (Full Self-Driving) beta as a “driver-assisted” technology, rather than a full autonomous vehicle, allowing it to skip the official reporting of any testing to the state of California. But, Tesla’s own reports suggest that more than half a billion (with a b) miles have now been covered by Tesla’s FSDbeta.

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Level up

The end-goal for self-driving cars is complete automation, where no human attention or manual input is required — a state known as level 5, on the industry scale for vehicle autonomy. Level 1 automation, which would include features like lane-keeping and cruise control, has been standard on some models for years, and some level 2 features, like steering or acceleration assistance, are now commonplace in high-end vehicles.

Predictions of when fully autonomous cars make their way into mainstream adoption have, historically, been way too optimistic. Elon Musk believes that Tesla is “very close” to delivering on level 4 or 5 self-driving, although it’s worth noting that similar comments have been made by Tesla's head honcho in years gone by. What is easy to predict: getting to level 5 is going to continue requiring an enormous amount of money.

Are we there yet?

Data from Crunchbase reveals that the amount of venture capital funding being poured into AVs has fallen sharply from its peak, and the willingness of industry incumbents to invest billions into projects with uncertain timelines also seems to be fading.

Cruise, for example, reportedly only has 9 months of cash left, having burned through more than $8 billion since 2017, and this week a senior executive at Honda, which has also invested heavily into the company, said it had no plans to invest more. Waymo cut 100 jobs earlier this year, Ford-backed Argo AI has already shut down, and the pivot to electric vehicles is proving enough of an expense for many manufacturers, without the added complication of building full autonomy.

Even as AI hype grows by the day, the road to full self-driving suddenly seems a little longer.

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