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The Long and Lucrative Mirage of the Driverless Car

This spring, Uber and Lyft are in a new wave of IPOs from gig-economy companies that are reorganizing the physical world as well as the digital one. Over the next several weeks, The Ringer wants to examine the impact of these companies on the way to live, and define the concept of a job in the modern age.

For Elon Musk, the driverless car is always right around the corner. Tesla's autonomous driving technology, the CEO predicted he would have a million cars on the road next year with self-driving hardware "at a reliability level attention. "That means Level 5 autonomy, by the Society of Automotive Engineers, or a vehicle that can travel on any road at any time without human intervention. It's a level of technological advancement I once compared to the Batmobile.

Musk has made these kinds of claims before. In 201

5 he predicted that Tesla would have "complete autonomy" by 2017 and a regulatory green light a year later. In 2016 he said that Tesla would be happy to hear from Los Angeles to New York by 2017. In 2017 he said people would be able to safely sleep in their fully autonomous Tesla's in about two years.

In the past, Musk's bold predictions have been met with a-for-effort enthusiasm and a smattering of polite skepticism. But the response this time has been different. Masquerading as engineering timelines. "That's bullshit," says Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant, a consulting firm that ranks companies on the viability of their autonomous vehicle plans. "At best, they may be able to create a system that functions under certain limited scenarios. It will not be fully autonomous in 2020 or anytime in the next several years. "

What's changed? Self-driving cars-and their associated building blocks-seek as machine learning, computer vision, and LIDAR-continue to improve, but executives other than have Musk have been exaggerated. Ford CEO Jim Hackett said he had "overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles." Chris Urmson, the former leader of Google's self-driving car project, once hoped that he did not need a driver's license because driverless cars would be so plentiful by 2020. Now the CEO of the self-driving startup Aurora, Urmson says that driverless cars will be slowly integrated onto our roads "over the next 30 to 50 years." That's almost as long as it took to evolve from IBM's first mainframe to Apple's first iPhone.

Despite the setbacks, money continues to pour into autonomous vehicle research. Companies from several industries have a lot to gain as long as the self-driving dream remains just beyond reach. For the tech giants, the driverless car could be the final hit after a decade-plus focused on consolidation rather than innovation. For Detroit automakers, the technology is hedge against the disruptors in Silicon Valley. For Uber and Lyft, it's the silver bullet that wants to make money-losing jobs into profitable ones at an unspecified future date. This child of rosy prognostication has led to breathless headlines and massive influxes of investment dollars. Ford just nabbed a $ 1.7 billion investment in driverless cars from Volkswagen. Uber's driverless car division recently valued at $ 7.25 billion. General Motors' autonomous division, which is worth $ 15 billion.

Yet the precise business models of these companies are used on driverless cars remain murky. What's more, this lack of clarity comes partially by design; for now, there's more money on the idea of ​​driverless cars than on the vehicles themselves. "I do not think it's all PR, but I think it's a bit of wishful thinking," says Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner who specializes in autonomous vehicles.

All of these companies, "What do you think?" from Detroit to Silicon Valley, cars are pitching in a similar way Utopia: Instead of owning cars, people wanting to drive through city streets by autonomous vehicles that can operate 24 hours a day, reducing vehicular fatalities and congestion in the process. When Google first introduced the driverless car as a practical research effort in 2010, the company projected that it would save as many as 600,000 lives per year and double the capacity of roads. And although Tesla wants to sell autonomous vehicles to individual consumers, the majority of these companies have decided to assemble them. A corporate fleet could be constrained to carefully mapped-out areas, and the vehicles could be used for recurrent revenue from shared rides.

This utopia does not exist, however, because there are a number of technical and legal hurdles that autonomous vehicles still have to surmount. The basic challenge of allowing driverless cars to come to grips with the world has not been solved; GM's Vehicles Continue to Disturb Moving Objects from Homegrown, according to an October 2018 report from Reuters. Beyond that, the brains of these cars have to be made to make split-second decisions based on a constantly changing environment. Given the risks involved, engineers have started to drive through the vehicle, they have not been able to drive the car, so they have not been able to drive the car year makes widespread deployment of the technology impractical, even if the kinks get worked out. Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, said that "You have more grounded expectations about the timeline for these technologies.

For Uber and Lyft in particular, the driverless car is easier to manage as a just-on-the-horizon technological myth than an actual product. Both are deeply unprofitable and have long propped up autonomous vehicles as the next key step to both revolutionizing and achieving riches. Back in August 2016, CEO Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick said the company was responsible for the purchase of the car on the platform. "But Uber's $ 680 million acquisition of self-driving startup Otto embroiled the company in a allegations of stolen LIDAR technology. In March 2018, one of Uber's driverless cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The New York Times and Business Insider revealed that Uber's autonomous vehicles at the time required human intervention more than their target of every 13 miles and had their ability to suddenly brake disabled to provide for a smoother riding experience. Prioritizing safety over ambitious launch targets.

Uber, which said the vehicle's brakes were disabled to prevent erratic driving, which was charged with no crime in the Arizona crash and reached an undisclosed settlement with the victim's family. The company's AI leaders, since chastened, now want to say that they're deploying a car at scale to take "a long time." "There's pressure on you to have a stake in the ground and say we'll be done by." this point, "Ramsey says. Lyft's foray into self-driving has not been close. "

Lyft's foray into self-driving has not been nearly as disastrous, but the company has pared down expectations. In 2016, Lyft president John Zimmer predicted that the majority of Lyft rides would be autonomous by 2021. So far it's only served 40,000 rides in driverless cars as part of an ongoing Las Vegas trial helped a billion rides it provides annually. Though the company just announced a partnership with Waymo that wants to bring a limited number of driverless cars to the Lyft platform in Phoenix, those rides want to have a human driver sitting as a fail-safe in the front seat Las Vegas trial. In its March IPO filing, Lyft put its projection for majority-autonomous rides at 2029.

In addition to the shifting timelines, there so remain pressing questions about what would driverless cars accomplish, economically and socially, if or when they are unleashed on the world. Autonomous vehicles would theoretically allow excess and lyft to cut costs by eliminating drivers and rapidly scaling up their operations. But reaping the full benefits of autonomous vehicles would require the ride-hailing giants to own and maintain their own vehicles.

The alternate option, which is Lyft is pursuing its Waymo partnership, is to serve as a platform for other companies that operate the cars. But that could end up simply replacing the expense of a human driver with the cost of a robotic one. Aurora, the AI ​​startup billing itself as the brains of the driverless vehicle, plans to get paid on a per-mile basis, just like human drivers do today. Companies "are going to be compensated for buying and operating the autonomous vehicles," Ramsey says. "So I really do not want to change the business model."

Lyft's Zimmer said the rise of driverless cars would be "all but end" private vehicle ownership in major cities by 2025. But Lyft's and Uber's previous promises to help have failed. Autonomous ride-hailing fleets at scale, congestion could in fact increase, as individual ride-hailing customers would continue to use single-occupant trips over shared rides, and the number of cars on the road could be up further if these were not done by humans.

"That's the dystopian view of what happens to automated cars," Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, told me when tech executives in Seattle were floating. "It really fits in with the view of how humans interact with technology. We are not interested in the social good of everybody working together. We're interested in me. "

Most people probably do not have to think about the societal effects of driverless cars for a while. Abuelsamid predicts that the average person does not want to be able to summon a driverless car in the U.S. until the late 2020s at the earliest, and companies' increasingly sketchy timelines. Uber and Lyft are unleashed on a highway. A positive development for potential customers of these driverless services.

But the whole endeavor has the feeling of a high-stakes gamble, where everyone's gone all in and no one is sure of the exact payoff. Klaus Froehlich, a board member at BMW and his head of research and development, told Reuters last year.

In his first quarterly earnings call with investors, Lyft touted its $ 108 million in research and development spending as its key to its "autonomous future." now, the clock has been put on hold for business that has been used in a decade trying to find a viable business model while fueled by venture capital. Once upon a time, these would have sounded alarm bells in the minds of investors. But firms like Netflix and Amazon have recently shown that companies can ride a money-losing plan to market domination, as long as the idea is persuasive enough. If the Silicon Valley has established something in the past decade, that's a bold promise, not profits, it's the true path to success in the modern economy .

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