Oct 28, 2022 - Economy

The automaker path to autonomous cars has changed

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

After this week's seismic collapse of leading autonomous driving startup Argo AI, it's tempting to think self-driving cars will never materialize. But as a tail-end baby boomer, I'm sticking with my long-held belief: Self-driving cars will be widely available just about the time authorities decide to yank my driver's license.

Why it matters: The promise of self-driving cars hasn't changed. They'll make the roads safer, reducing the roughly 43,000 fatalities from motor vehicle crashes each year in the U.S.

  • And they'll make transportation more accessible for those who don't drive or can't afford to, including people who are elderly, blind or disabled and even children.

What's changed: How carmakers see the path to autonomy.

  • Instead of shooting for the moon — cars that fully drive themselves in all conditions — many automakers are adopting an interim strategy of equipping cars with partial automation to handle the worst aspects of driving.
  • It's easier and cheaper, and they can do that soon, with many of the same sensors and software they've been developing for fully autonomous cars.

A few carmakers, including GM, Ford and Tesla, already offer hands-free technology for some stretches of highway driving.

  • Even more advanced systems are coming soon from Mercedes-Benz, Volvo Cars and others that will take over during traffic jams and don't require human supervision, so drivers can relax or even catch up on email.

Driving the news: Ford CEO Jim Farley explained the shift in his company's thinking on Wednesday after announcing the Argo pullout (Ford's joint-venture partner, Volkswagen AG, is also stepping away).

  • When Ford first invested in Argo back in 2017, it expected to bring robotaxis to market by 2021.
  • "But things have changed, and there's a huge opportunity right now for Ford to give time — the most valuable commodity in modern life — back to millions of customers while they're in their vehicles," Farley said.

What they're saying: Gartner mobility analyst Mike Ramsey called the Argo pullout "a turning point" for AV investors, who have spent $75 billion on the technology since 2010, according to AlixPartners, a global consulting firm.

  • "The obstacles to having a fully autonomous system that is better than humans are significant, and the business case for selling partial autonomy as a comfort feature is pretty good," says Ramsey.
  • "A lot of companies and their investors have to be asking how long they can remain committed to pursuing it."

"Clearly the financial markets don't see this as a viable business right now," added Guidehouse Insights analyst Sam Abuelsamid, citing the plummeting stock prices of publicly traded AV companies such as Aurora and TuSimple.

  • Another sign: Mobileye, the self-driving Intel unit that went public this week, was valued at just $17 billion, well below the expected $50 billion mark. After a first-day pop, its stock has retreated too.

The other side: Those still pursuing fully self-driving technology aren't flinching — yet.

  • Many have deep pockets behind them, such as Google-backed Waymo, GM's Cruise, Hyundai's Motional and Amazon's Zoox.
  • "What's happening here is that the companies with the best product have pulled ahead and are accelerating," Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told GM investors the day before Argo's shutdown was announced.
  • "What we're seeing now is much like what happened to the automobile industry," says Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora, which is working on self-driving trucks.
  • "At the beginning of the 20th century, there were over 250 manufacturers. By the 1930s, there were only three. This doesn't mean the industry was a failure — it means it was an incredibly lucrative opportunity that attracted a lot of competition but was also extremely challenging."

The big picture: As companies and investors tighten their belts amid economic concerns, startups working on self-driving cars, next-gen virtual reality and all sorts of other cutting-edge tech will find it harder to raise cash — but that doesn't mean those innovations will never see the light of day.

Go deeper