The dream of the truly driverless car is officially dead

Google driverless car
This May 13, 2014 file photo shows a row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

  • Driverless technology has been heralded as a way to save costs and save lives.
  • But driverless does not mean humanless. Technology still requires human oversight.
  • This often means increased, not reduced, costs for business and consumers alike.
  • Ashley Nunes is Director for Competition Policy at the R Street Institute.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Lyft’s quest for driverless cars is over. The company recently announced the sale of its self-driving unit to auto giant Toyota. The move isn’t surprising. Despite hefty investment, Lyft’s driverless utopia, like many others, remains more fiction than fact.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2016, Lyft President John Zimmer predicted that driverless cars would, “account for the majority of Lyft rides within five years.” By 2025, Zimmer reasoned, private car ownership will all but end in major US cities.”

Such reasoning was largely rooted in “techno optimism:” a deeply held belief that machines are superior to humans in terms of servitude. Sensors and software, after all, don’t complain, don’t tire, and don’t demand pay hikes – or salaries at all for that matter. This trifecta is purportedly a surefire way to lift profits. Hence, the tech-centric spending spree on all things autonomous. Ride-hailing companies have burnt millions over the years on perfecting the technology.

Yet, autonomous does not mean humanless. In Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy,” Historian David Mindell explains why. “There are no fully autonomous systems,” Mindell reasons. “The machine that operates entirely independently of human direction is a useless machine. Only a rock is truly autonomous.” Put another way, the type of automation ride-hailing companies are betting on to boost earnings doesn’t exist. It never has.

And if it did, humans would still play a role. The reason? Machines – much like humans – can’t be trusted to get it right all the time, every time. Take what is arguably the longest serving piece of automation today: the airplane autopilot. First introduced in 1912, the system is designed to balance an airplane so human pilots don’t have to. The result is a smoother, safer ride for passengers. But as we know, there have been hiccups. In 1985, a jetliner nearly crashed after the autopilot failed to inform the crew about an imminent ‘loss of control’ – a dangerous condition that can cause a crash. Because of such oversights, autopilot use today is contingent on human supervision.

This also explains why driverless cars remain, after years of development, not so driverless after all. Look beyond the headlines and you’ll find human overlords watch from afar over purportedly automated systems. Customer support staff are also on hand to answer rider queries – such as “What if I want to change my destination during the trip?” And then there’s an armada of pricey engineers standing ready to solve vexing road problems, like what to do when a lane is blocked by double-parked cars, orange traffic cones, or the occasional taco truck.

All this human capital means more, not less, expense; bloated, not pared down, balance sheets. And that’s problematic for an industry that has struggled to turn a profit. In 2019 alone, ride-hailing companies lost over $10 billion, their financial statements being described as, “a hemorrhaging fountain of red ink with no path to profitability.” Company execs had hoped self-driving investments would provide relief. The available evidence suggests otherwise.

It’s time we see the driverless dream for what it is: a Disneyland-style spectacle that can’t “live up to its sci-fi imaginings, a series of very expensive and glitzy pilot projects that can’t cut it in the real world.” Driverless technology may,, on its best days, be astounding, but those days have been few and far between. Self-driving algorithms may – given the frequency of human folly – make intuitive sense but intuition isn’t always right.

Earlier this year, the UK government suggested that driverless cars could soon hit the A10, an major road in England that connects London to various cities to its north. “We’re on the cusp of a driving revolution,” noted Transport Minister Rachel Maclean. But turning that revolution into reality demands a guarantee of technological perfection – a guarantee that few, if any, driverless tech developers can give. Until that happens, expect human drivers to stick around.

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Waymo CEO John Krafcik is leaving the self-driving car company

John Krafcik Waymo
Waymo’s COO and CTO will fill the now-vacant position as co-CEOs.

John Krafcik, the chief executive of Alphabet’s autonomous-driving company, Waymo, is stepping down, the company announced Friday.

“After five and a half exhilarating years leading this team, I’ve decided to depart from my CEO role with Waymo and kick-off new adventures,” Krafcik said in a blog post.

Krafcik will be replaced by two current Waymo executives – COO Dmitri Dolgov and CTO Tekedra Mawakana – who will head the firm as co-CEOs, the company said. Krafcik will stay on as an advisor to the firm, and it was not immediately clear if he has plans to move to a new role outside the company.

Read more: How to nail the key interview questions that Jeff Bezos-backed self-driving startup Aurora asks job candidates

Before heading up Waymo, Krafcik served as the CEO of Hyundai Motor North America and of car-buying website True Car.

Waymo, which was founded in 2009 as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, is working on autonomous-driving technology for future ride-hailing and delivery services. The system, Waymo Driver, has logged tens of millions of miles of driving on US roads and is considered by many to be the most advanced self-driving system in development.

In October 2020, Waymo announced plans to begin offering fully driverless rides to customers in Phoenix.

Read Waymo CEO John Krafcik’s full email to staff:

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Waymo’s CEO says Tesla is ‘no competitor at all’ when it comes to autonomous vehicles, according to reports

John Krafcik Waymo
Waymo CEO John Krafcik.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik said Tesla is “no competitor at all” for its autonomous vehicles, according to multiple reports citing an interview with Germany’s Manager Magazin.

“For us, Tesla is not a competitor at all,” Krafcik said, according to Ars Technica

He added: “We manufacture a completely autonomous driving system. Tesla is an automaker that is developing a really good driver assistance system.”

Waymo and Tesla did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday. 

Read more: Early Rivian investors explain the 3 factors that could make the Amazon-backed startup the next Tesla

The two vehicle companies have sparred recently, with Waymo earlier this month dropping its “self-driving” description, as an apparent dig at Tesla. 

On its website, Tesla describes its Autopilot feature as being the future of self-driving vehicles “in almost all circumstances.” Among its features are eight cameras with 360-degree visibility, 12 sensors, and a forward-facing radar, according to the company. 

Waymo said in a blog post: “We’re hopeful that consistency will help differentiate the fully autonomous technology Waymo is developing from driver-assist technologies (sometimes erroneously referred to as ‘self-driving’ technologies) that require oversight from licensed human drivers for safe operation.”

elon musk journalists crowd no mask tesla construction
Elon Musk talks to journalists at the construction site of the Tesla Giga-Factory in Grünheide near Berlin.

In the Manager Magazin interview published on Friday, Krafcik said Tesla is “developing a really good driver-assistance system,” according to Bloomberg

Tesla’s website states: “All new Tesla cars have the hardware needed in the future for full self-driving in almost all circumstances.” Among its features are eight cameras with 360-degree visibility, 12 sensors, and a forward-facing radar, according to the company. 

CEO Elon Musk said last year that he was confident Tesla’s features could achieve “level five” autonomy, where human intervention isn’t required. Waymo had previously developed an Autopilot-like system, but reportedly scrapped it.

But Waymo’s sensor setup is “orders of magnitude better,” said Krafcik, according to automotive news blog Jalopnik. The difference, he said, is that Waymo is working on fully autonomous vehicles, while Tesla is only adding autonomous features to its vehicles, according to the report. 

“It is a misconception that you can just keep developing a driver assistance system until one day you can magically leap to a fully autonomous driving system,” said Krafcik, according to Jalopnik and Bloomberg. 

Waymo also has significantly reduced the cost of building an autonomous vehicle, according to the report. 

“The costs for the technology are greatly overestimated – at least in our case,” Krafcik said, according to Forbes

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