As recently as March, Daimler AG promised to put 10,000 autonomous taxis on the streets by 2021. However, this week, chairman Ola Kaellenius announced that the company was taking a “reality check” on the project and focusing on self-driving long-haul trucks instead.
It is fine that self-driving cabs are not coming as fast as some expected — and it is even better that Silicon Valley-style big talk appears to be going out of fashion.
Kaellenius’ “reality check” has some solid business reasons: Daimler is cutting costs and cannot commit to a large, capital-intensive project without a clear idea of what kind of first-mover advantage it might confer.
However, mostly, it comes because of a long-obvious technical problem. Making sure self-driving vehicles are not a menace in city traffic is a job that would take more than a couple of years.
Investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of the March last year accident in which a driverless Uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, and it appears Uber Technologies Inc’s cars had been involved in dozens of previous non-fatal incidents in the course of the same testing program.
No one wants to be in the same situation as Uber — so General Motors Co subsidiary Cruise will not be launching self-driving taxis in San Francisco this year, as previously promised, and maybe not next year, either.
There has been lots of news stories about Waymo LLC, an Alphabet Inc subsidiary, launching a self-driving taxi service in Arizona, and in April, it even put an app for it on the Google Play store.
However, in September, Morgan Stanley lowered Waymo’s valuation because of delays in the commercial use of its technology, and last month, Waymo chief executive John Krafcik said driverless delivery trucks could come before a taxi service.
For European automakers, which have to deal with older cities not laid out on a grid, launching autonomous taxi services appears even more daunting than for Americans. They know it is a long way from Tempe to Amsterdam or Rome.
That is one reason Volkswagen AG, a latecomer to self-driving development, is not worried about being overtaken.
Alexander Hitzinger, chief executive of Volkswagen’s autonomous-car subsidiary, said in a recent interview that even an industry pioneer such as Waymo was “a long way away from commercializing the technology” and that Volkswagen’s autonomous vehicles would be developed by the mid-2020s.
That time frame might be no more realistic than the previous hype about big launches this year and next year.
Autonomous-vehicle developers can complain all they want about unpredictable human drivers and pedestrians who are causing all the accidents with their flawlessly superhuman creations, but nobody is going to clear the cities of people to give self-driving vehicles a spotless safety record.
Making sure that, after millions of hours of training, artificial intelligence is finally able to drive like a human after a few hundred hours on the road, is not all that is required for robo-taxis to be viable. There is still the whole matter of figuring out how to reduce rather than increase urban congestion by using vehicles that do not “think” like humans.
It is also dangerous to adopt any kind of specific framework for the launch of automated truck services, even though that is an easier project than taxis, because the routes are fixed.
The presence of humans in what is still a predominantly human world has rather unpredictable consequences for robot behavior. And the first movers have an obvious disadvantage: Like Uber with a taxi, they can get burned in ways that could set the whole business back years, and the earnings potential is unclear.
None of this means, of course, that self-driving development has failed or even hit a dead end. Given enough time and a few technological breakthroughs, autonomous vehicles will be safe around actual people in actual winding, narrow, crowded streets. Engineering challenges exist to be overcome. The problem is not with the tech, which is moving along at a reasonably rapid pace, but with how that progress is communicated.
Nobody forced experienced managers at venerable companies such as Daimler or GM to make overly optimistic statements about self-driving taxi launches.
Waymo is a cash-burning start-up and it is difficult to hold it responsible for getting ahead of itself.
However, the adults in the room look silly for having tried to play catch-up. There is no reason for the big auto companies to make any promises on self-driving at all. Unlike with vehicle electrification, which is part of many countries’ climate policies, there is no regulatory pressure to eliminate human drivers. And autonomous mobility-related business models are purely theoretical at this point.
It would be enough for companies involved in autonomous-vehicle development to say they are working on it.
Pretty much all the big players are, to some extent. The time for any other kind of announcement will come when someone is really ready to launch a commercial service, whenever that may be. No rush.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion Web site Slon.ru.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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