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The “death of self-driving cars” has been greatly exaggerated



Seven years ago, hype about self-driving cars was off the charts. It wasn’t just Tesla CEO Elon Musk—who has been making outlandish predictions about self-driving technology since 2015. In 2016, Ford set a goal to start selling cars without steering wheels by 2021. The same year, Lyft predicted that a majority of rides on its network would be autonomous by 2021.

None of that happened. Instead, the last few years have seen brutal consolidation. Uber sold off its self-driving project in 2020, and Lyft shut down its effort in 2021. Then, last October, Ford and Volkswagen announced they were shutting down their self-driving joint venture called Argo AI.

Today, a lot of people view self-driving technology as an expensive failure whose moment has passed. The Wall Street Journal’s Chris Mims argued in 2021 that self-driving cars “could be decades away.” Last year, Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin declared that “self-driving cars are going nowhere.”

But a handful of well-funded projects have continued to plug away at the problem. The leaders are Waymo—formerly the Google self-driving car project—and Cruise, a startup that is majority-owned by GM.

These companies don’t believe self-driving technology is “decades away” because they’re already testing it in Phoenix and San Francisco. And they are preparing to launch in additional cities in the coming months. Waymo expects to increase passenger rides tenfold between now and the summer of 2024. Cruise is aiming for $1 billion in revenue in 2025, which would require something like a 50-fold expansion of its current service.


There is no guarantee they will succeed. Even if they iron out all the technical problems, it will take many years to make these services profitable.

But I think the pendulum of public opinion has now swung too far in the pessimistic direction. Self-driving technology has steadily improved over the last few years, and there’s every reason to expect that progress to continue.

“It’s definitely happening a lot slower than people anticipated back in 2017,” industry analyst Sam Abuelsamid told me. “But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t progress being made.”

“I would not be surprised if by the end of 2025, each of those companies is operating in 10 to 12 cities across the US to varying degrees of scale,” Abuelsamid added.

“Smoother and more confident”

Alex Roy has had a colorful career. He has been a rally racer and a journalist. He joined Argo AI in 2019 and stayed until it was shut down last year. Roy now lives in the Phoenix area doing consulting work related to self-driving cars. He also hosts a podcast about the self-driving sector.

In short, Roy knows a lot about cars in general and self-driving cars in particular. And he has nothing but good things to say about Waymo’s driverless taxi service in the Phoenix area.

“I’ve now taken several Waymo rides, and they’re exceptionally good,” Roy told me.


When I talked to Roy last Thursday, he had just taken a Waymo ride from the Phoenix airport to his home in Scottsdale. Technically, Waymo cars don’t pick people up at the airport—airport pickup areas are still too chaotic for that—but they do the next best thing, serving two stops along the airport’s fast and free Sky Train.

I also recently talked to Joel Johnson, a Phoenix-area college student who has created dozens of YouTube videos of his rides in driverless Waymo vehicles. Johnson told me that Waymo’s service has been steadily improving over the last three years.

A big step came late last year with the debut of Jaguar I-PACE SUVs outfitted with Waymo’s fifth-generation hardware. Johnson told me that the new vehicles represented “a huge leap” in performance over Waymo’s previous Chrysler Pacifica minivans and were “measurably better in many respects.”

The new driverless Jaguars were “much smoother and more confident,” Johnson said. An added bonus: Whereas the Pacifica’s trunk was filled with computer hardware, the Jaguar’s trunk was empty and available for passenger use.

Source: Ars Technica


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