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Uber's self-driving fleet, 2016. Photo: Angelo Merendino / AFP / Getty

Carmakers and tech companies are likely to considerably delay their rollout of fuller autonomous driving after the death of a pedestrian who was run over by a self-driven Uber, said Barclays analyst Brian Johnson.

What they're saying: In a note to clients, Johnson said the late Sunday night accident in Arizona shows that, while carmakers may be 90% or even 95% of the way to optimizing autonomous technology, "it’s the last 5-10% which is the toughest to achieve."

What may undergo a rethink: The industry has been in a self-driving development frenzy. A number of automakers already sell vehicles rated at "Level 2," which means hands-on autonomous functionality. And all of them are in a rush to get to Level 5, which makes steering wheels and pedals unnecessary:

  • Last week, GM said its self-driving Cruise AV, without a steering wheel or pedals, will go into production next year. It will not be for individual car-owners, but for ride-sharing, to be operated in fleets in states such as Arizona and California. (GM did not respond to a request for comment. Johnson thinks that the company may slow down this rollout.)
  • But generally speaking, 2021 is — at least as of the time of the Uber accident — the year of the self-driving car: Volvo has said it will have Level 4 autonomy by 2021. So did Ford. VW and Hyundai say they may even reach Level 5.
  • Waymo, Google's self-driving unit, has tested its technology by far the most of any company, and may at the same time be the most conservative about the decision to launch commercially. Last month, Waymo received approval to operate a self-driving ride-hailing service in Arizona, but it has not announced when that will begin.

Tesla's Elon Musk may be the most bullish maker of self-driving technology. In an earnings call last month, Musk said a Tesla would do a self-driven, cross-country U.S. run by July, and that he would make the capability available to customers at an unspecified later date.

  • Tesla did not respond to an email asking about any delay. But, again, Johnson suggested that, at the least, Musk's plans would face pushback. "The [Uber] news reinforces that conservatism may be the right approach — leading some to question Tesla," Johnson said.

Self-driving experts are urging renewed contemplation of when fully autonomous cars go on the road. Raj Rajkumar, head of the self-driving car lab at Carnegie Mellon University, suggested that success can make some autonomous teams complacent. "Just because the vehicle drove itself fine for the past 10 miles does not mean that it can deal with all the conditions it will encounter during the next 10 miles," he told Axios in an email. 

"Computers and humans are fundamentally different in how we learn and do things. If a human driver can handle a mix of situations on the road, one can imagine that person doing the reasonable/right thing in (almost) all other conditions.  This is how we license human drivers. Unfortunately, this is NOT true for computers which are programmed to do certain things. Situations that they are not programmed for will not be handled by computers. Hence, the need for human operators who must step in as needed for now."
— Raj Rajkumar

Go deeper

MacKenzie Scott donates another $2.7 billion to 286 organizations

MacKenzie Scott with her former husband, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Photo by Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

MacKenzie Scott announced Tuesday that she and her husband, Dan Jewett, had donated $2.74 billion to 286 different organizations, including community-based nonprofits and organizations focused on racial justice.

Why it matters: It's the next phase of what the New York Times describes as a "highly unconventional approach" to philanthropy from one of the richest women in the world.

Heat wave enveloping West will shatter records, spark wildfires

The sun sets behind power lines in Rosemead, California on June 14, 2021, amid an early season heatwave across much of California this week. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

A dangerous and widespread mid-June heat wave is bringing blowtorch-like heat, skyrocketing power demand, and “critical” wildfire danger to much of the West Tuesday through this weekend.

Why it matters: The heat is building in a region that is experiencing a record drought, leading to dangerous fire weather conditions, straining electrical grids, and causing water supplies to dwindle further. The heat itself may prove deadly.

Politico's top editor leaving for NBC

Screenshot: Youtube

Politico’s top editor Carrie Budoff Brown is joining NBC in a high-level executive position at the network that includes overseeing the "Meet the Press" franchise, sources familiar with the discussions tell Axios.

Why it matters: Budoff Brown has been with Politico since its earliest days in 2007 and is admired among newsroom staff. Her departure will be a major loss to the organization.