Self-Driving Car — Are We There Yet?
Overpromising and under-delivery seem to be a common impression of self-driving in the past few years. With a few more changes wrapping up 2021, what could be the future hold? How may we accelerate?
A new chapter
After a few years of a good ride & “more than $80B invested” period to 2017, most of the self-driving predictions for 2020–21 still fell short. No wonder reshuffling of executives and even brain-draining are happening in 2021.
- On Dec. 16, GM announced Dan Ammann, CEO of Cruise, is leaving.
- On Dec. 8, Apple loses a few car project engineering leads on top of Doug Field, ex-VP of Apple car project joined Ford in Sep.
- In April, John Krafcik ended his 6 years of endeavors as Waymo CEO, and Gerard Dwyer left the role of Waymo CFO in May.
As a new chapter unfolds in 2022, what does the upcoming future hold for self-driving?
Timing the future
While it’s difficult to say when for sure, the market has learned Self-Driving commercialization will take much longer than expected. Consequently, Uber got out of the game in 2020. Lyft is selling the division to Toyota in 2021. Furthermore, there has been no new Robotaxi startup breaking the news in 4 years. Without much interest & new venture capital, survivors might need to find a better niche, such as logistics or industrial applications.
However, there is hope for mass-market adoption if some persist. Apple may still secretly push forward as early as 2025. Whereas, Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s 2021 report estimates 50% of new cars may be self-driving by 2045. Either way, the drum beats of self-driving adoption have to go on. So, what could be catalysts to accelerate?
Two key levers
“So if we have autonomy, that would potentially save on the order of a million lives per year… It’s one of those things where you’re not going to get rewarded necessarily for the lives that you save, but you will definitely be blamed for the lives you don’t save.” — Elon Musk in the interview of TIME’s 2021 person of the year
Consumer acceptance takes more than a technology breakthrough. Quite often even as the tech is “feeling good”, consumers still reject some innovations. This is likely the case of self-driving at least for now. For example, AAA’s survey suggests only 14% of drivers would trust it in 2021. To accelerate the adoption, something beyond tech. might be needed. Two hypotheses may be worth exploring:
- Subscription & insurance: someone, such as Tesla may offer a “prime self-driving” subscription service. The deal will be sweeter if it comes with insurance coverage. So, the risk can be properly hedged, the damage can be better compensated, and drivers may be really “hands-off”.
- Black boxes & open datasets: as black boxes provide feedbacks to improve flight safety, the same concept may guide self-driving toward a safer path. For example, CA DMV received a bunch of collision reports from self-driving test cars. What if these records can be used to validate all self-driving systems will not repeat the incident?
The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company. They are mostly extrapolations from public information. I don’t have insider knowledge of those companies, nor a whatever expert.