Makers of self-driving cars predicted a quick race to the finish line, but their vehicles are far from the homestretch.
What happened: A few years ago, some car companies promised road-ready autonomous vehicles as early as 2017. At a Wall Street Journal conference in January, though, Waymo CEO John Krafcik disclosed his belief that autonomous vehicles would probably never be able to drive in all conditions. His comment set the tone for a year of automotive retrenchment.
Driving the story: A confluence of difficulties prompted several car companies to tap the breaks.
- Urban driving presents hazards so diverse, and dangerous edge cases so rare, that engineers have yet to figure out how to build models that overcome them. Vehicles that traverse predictable routes, such as automated buses and long haul freight trucks, likely will be first to deployment.
- The high cost and limited availability of sensors — particularly lidar — have forced companies to manufacture their own or scale back the number they use on each car. Fewer sensors mean less data for training and perception.
- GM Cruise and Tesla postponed their autonomous taxi deadlines to 2020. The U.S. city of Phoenix gave Waymo and Lyft permission to run autonomous taxis in 2018, but the service is available only to a limited area and a small number of users. In November, Waymo shuttered its Austin self-driving research facility.
Behind the news: Cities in China are experimenting with a different approach. Rather than training autonomous vehicles to navigate existing urban settings, they’re retrofitting cities to facilitate the technology. Features include roadside sensors that pass along navigational cues, like lane changes and speed limits.
Where things stand: Traditional automakers are focusing on assisted driving features like Ford’s Driver Assist and Mercedes’ Parking Assist. Meanwhile, Waymo continues to work on fully autonomous vehicles, and smaller companies such as May Mobility and Voyage are deploying full autonomy in limited scenarios that they aim to expand over time. In parallel, companies such as TuSimple, Embark, and Starsky are concentrating on fully autonomous interstate trucking.