Five years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the buzz was all about autonomous vehicles. Several major automakers made presentations to journalists projecting their brands would offer self-driving vehicles by the 2021 or 2022 model years. With prototypes being tested, the message was that production was not far off.

Obviously, that hasn’t happened — at least not yet. 

In 2020, reports indicated that the automotive industry had spent $16 billion on driverless technology, and this year that number has risen to $100 billion in pursuit of the dream of a driverless car. Yet for all that investment, the self-driving car seems farther away than it did half a decade ago.

Collisions involving self-driving tech shake consumer confidence, even as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says owners overestimate just how self-driving their vehicles really are. According to a report in Autoblog, industry analysts are questioning the value and valuation of autonomous tech companies, saying “These companies have squandered tens of billions of dollars.”

Against that backdrop, automakers and self-driving tech companies are taking a good look at their autonomous efforts and making changes to their business plans. Ford just abandoned its partnership with Argo AI and Volkswagen, which was working toward Level 4 autonomous driving. It did so in favor of making its own Level 2 driver assistance technology more profitable.

Ford CEO Farley indicated that the company had not yet developed a profitable business model for Level 4 tech despite the fact that Argo AI had expanded its driverless vehicle testing into additional cities earlier this year. Ford’s partnership with Mobileye for driver assistance technology seems to be moving forward, however. Volkswagen moved to partner with Israel-based Mobileye as well.

Waymo moving forward

The dream of the self-driving car is not dead, however. Google’s Waymo project started offering its autonomous ride hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona. The service uses modified Jaguar I-Pace SUVs and customers can hail a self-driving ride using the Waymo app. The app is available at the Apple App Store and through Google Play.

Waymo’s robotaxi website states, “With millions of miles driven through countless situations on public roads, and billions more in simulation, we’ve gathered incredible amounts of data and invaluable lessons to develop autonomous driving technology further than anyone else.” 

The company has also stated aspirations to offer similar ride hailing services in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its technology has been under test in 13 different states. However, state laws and regulations are inconsistent when it comes to requirements and permits for self-driving vehicles. 

Other players still in the game

General Motors has expanded its Super Cruise driver assistance technology, adding more roads to the system’s known map, but its Cruise self-driving project has faced challenges. The project’s cloud-based operating system failed in San Francisco, tying up the vehicles and conventional traffic in part of the city’s downtown area for a couple of hours.

Apple’s Project Titan has had its own bumps in the road, with failures to keep vehicles in their lanes and problems recognizing pedestrians. The company recently brought in development talent from Lamborghini to get the project back on track. 

Ride hailing service Lyft is also continuing its project to provide robo-taxi services in Las Vegas with tech company Motional providing the autonomy. Motional itself is a project founded by Hyundai and Delphi spinoff Aptiv

Volvo is also moving forward with its unsupervised autonomous driving feature, known as Ride Pilot. The company plans to roll out the feature to customers in the state of California first. Once it has been verified as safe for use on highways, Ride Pilot is planned to be available as an add-on subscription on the company’s forthcoming fully electric EX90 SUV. It is extremely unlikely that Volvo, a company built on a reputation for safety, would risk its credibility on an unproven system. 

Finally, Tesla has continued to promote its Autopilot system and Full Self-Driving program, even as government scrutiny increases. Outside critics have also pointed out shortcomings in the California-based company’s autonomous performance, noting in several tests, Tesla vehicles using FSD failed to stop for child-size crash test dummies crossing in front of them.

At this point, no automaker is completely abandoning research and development into self-driving vehicles, but executives are clearly looking at mounting expenses and asking pointed questions about return on that investment.

*By Jeff Zurschmeide, The Detroit Bureau*

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