Self-drive carmakers gag the hype
THREE former executives at Google, Tesla and Uber who once raced to be the first to develop self-driving cars have adopted a new strategy: slow down, and shut up.
At their new company Aurora Innovation, which is developing self-driving technology for carmakers including Volkswagen and Hyundai, the rules are simple: no flashy launches, mind-blowing timelines or hyper-choreographed performances on closed tracks.
“No demo candy,” said Chris Urmson, a co-founder and former head of Google’s self-driving car team.
Aurora’s long-game technique reflects a new phase for the hyped promise of computer-piloted supercars: a more subdued, more pragmatic way of addressing the tough realities of the most complicated robotic system ever built.
In the wake of several high-profile crashes that dented public enthusiasm in autonomous cars, Aurora’s executives are urging their own industry to face a reality check, saying lofty promises risk confusing passengers and dooming the technology before it can truly take off.
The “entire industry” needs “to be more truthful about our capabilities”, said Sterling Anderson, an Aurora co-founder and former head of Tesla’s Autopilot system. “We’re talking about building trust in the public.
“You don’t do that by overstating what the system can and can’t do.”
A safe, sellable, self-driving car has become the holy grail of Silicon Valley: converting even a fraction of the 4.8trillion kilometres driven every year by American cars and trucks could reduce deadly accidents caused by human error and spawn a multibillion-dollar business.
Fifty-seven companies are authorised to test self-driving vehicles on California roads, state records show, and competition for talent, software and technologies has sparked an arms race even among traditional carmakers: Ford and GM have each invested roughly $1billion in their respective self-driving firms, Argo AI and Cruise.
The first company to market a true self-driving car could gain incredible cachet, winning buyer trust and marketing potential for which its rivals could only dream.
But industry experts suspect most will fail. The timeline is so uncertain. The development costs are so high.
And the competition is so fierce, in the US and around the world. The investment giant NIO Capital estimated in August that the “survival rate” for China’s hundreds of self-driving start-ups would be about 1%.
To stand out, companies have pushed for increasingly strange or captivating visions of the future: Mercedes-Benz recently unveiled self-driving concept cars straight out of science fiction, including a windscreen-less car that resembles a giant toaster. |