Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The enormous promise of quantum computing has lured big early investments from finance, aerospace, defense, and other tech-soaked industries. But an unexpected player is neck-and-neck with these front-runners: carmakers.

Big auto companies are tinkering with quantum computers in hopes they can solve problems too hefty for today's machines, from cooking up bigger batteries to designing lighter vehicles. And as they experiment, a host of other companies are lingering on the sidelines, watching for the right moment to jump in.

The big picture: This new generation of computers, built on measuring the inscrutable activity of tiny, tiny particles, is at a drawn-out inflection point.

Quantum computers are inching from theory toward practice, driven by a first wave of companies playing the long game, betting that the hires and investments they make today — plus the patents they file — will pay off years down the line.

  • For car companies especially, there's a cosmic alignment between their big problems and the tasks quantum computers are likely to excel at, says Michael Brett, CEO of QxBranch, a D.C.-based quantum computing company.
  • It's thought that the new technology will be able to optimize complex systems, like an assembly line. It could simulate chemical reactions essential for battery design with previously impossible accuracy. Or it might supercharge artificial intelligence, a key challenge for autonomous driving.

But all of these are maybes. The research suggests that quantum computers will be able to do all these things — but they haven't yet.

  • "The field is so nascent that we haven't settled on the equivalent of transistors," says Yianni Gamvros, head of business development at QC Ware, a Silicon Valley quantum computing company.
  • So companies are in a familiar bind: Jump in now and risk losing big, or wait it out and watch the competition possibly pull away.

Despite the uncertainty, automakers have been hiring quantum experts and launching early experiments.

What's worrying them: Companies searching history for clues of how to proceed see a cautionary tale in the sudden explosion of artificial intelligence, says Matt Johnson, QC Ware's CEO.

  • Businesses that were caught flat-footed by AI later rushed to catch up — only to find that most of the best and brightest minds had been lured by sexy startups and Big Tech.
  • Already, quantum experts are scarce. "There's a complete absence right now of actually talented people who can do quantum computing," says Lawrence Gasman, president of Inside Quantum Technology, a consulting firm.

"We want to make sure we have a group of people within Volkswagen who can work with these systems when we're ready to tackle this industrially relevant problems," says Florian Neukart, the scientist who heads VW's 15-person quantum effort. Plus, he says: "We want to generate IP. We think now is the time."

If the first wave of adopters — which also includes Big Pharma and the oil and gas industry — strike gold, that could embolden many other sectors who are still waiting in the wings.

  • "If you're a fertilizer maker, you're probably not thinking about quantum computing at the moment," says William Altman, an analyst at CB Insights. That's despite the fact that quantum computers could help find new, profitable ways of making ammonia, an essential fertilizer ingredient.
  • "But if you see a company like Mercedes getting into quantum computing, it might open your eyes to the fact that quantum isn't just about tech companies."

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