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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."

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Health

Pfizer-BioNTech: Booster doses more effective at blocking Omicron

Prepared doses of the BioNtech-Pfizer Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Germany on Dec. 7. Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday that two doses of their COVID-19 vaccine were significantly less effective at neutralizing the Omicron variant in early lab tests, but a three-dose regimen was more effective.

Why it matters: Omicron, which has been labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization after being identified by scientists in South Africa last month, has forced vaccine makers to reassess the effectiveness of their vaccines against this specific new form of coronavirus.

Mike Allen, author of AM
1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Biden unveils "Building a Better America" branding

President Biden speaks on infrastructure while visiting a bridge in Woodstock, N.H., last month. Photo: John Tully/Getty Images

President Biden today launched a new website and unveiled bold new branding as part of a nationwide tour to sell the benefits of his infrastructure package.

Why it matters: The White House says passage of the new law shows the ability to "forge bipartisan consensus and prove our democracy can deliver big wins" even in these toxic times.

3 hours ago - World

Olaf Scholz sworn in as German chancellor, succeeding Merkel

Incoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is sworn in by Bundestag President Bärbel Bas in Berlin today. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz was sworn in as chancellor of Germany on Wednesday, succeeding Angela Merkel after 16 years and launching a new era of German and European politics.

Why it matters: Scholz, a center-left pragmatist who served as finance minister and vice chancellor in Merkel's last government, will lead Europe's largest economy in a coalition with the environmentalist Greens and pro-business Free Democrats.

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