After years of multibillion-dollar investments, “around the corner” promises of robotaxis, and predictions that today’s kids may never have to learn how to drive, 2022 ended with a harsh wake-up call for the autonomous car industry.
High-profile crashes made headlines instead of major technological leaps. Major companies raised the white flag and pulled out of the effort. And the passing of respected technology leader Argo AI has left investors and industry officials alike wondering if they can’t do it, who can?
But even with a newfound understanding that self-driving cars are still years or even decades away, automakers and tech companies alike are still striving toward that goal. And major investments are being made in self-driving technology, proving that autonomous vehicles remain a priority even in a weak capital environment and an uncertain economy.
Both automakers and tech companies are still striving for that driverless goal
A recent report from F-Prime Capital showed just how strong this decline was. In 2022 alone, AV investments fell nearly 60 percent year over year as startups struggled with layoffs or outright closures.
At the Shanghai Auto Show last month, a spokesperson for emerging Chinese EV giant BYD expressed a rare dose of extreme skepticism about AVs flying in the face of most competitors, telling CNBC that self-driving, completely separate from humans, “is basically impossible And here in America, consumer confidence and interest in self-driving cars seems to be at an all-time low.
And in a perfect encapsulation of the mid-2010s autonomy hype, Intel predicted in 2017 a $7 trillion industry — more than double what the global auto industry is doing now — around autonomy by 2050.
But now it seems that lofty goal, or something close to it, has not really disappeared.
It’s just cooled down a bit.
Case in point: Toyota and tech giant Nvidia are two investors putting $43 million into Foretellix, an Israeli company that develops autonomy and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Foretellix’s Series C fundraising was announced this week, and company officials say it has already raised $93 million to date.
That, and the fact that funding comes in part from Nvidia – a graphics chip and software giant now making huge strides in the automotive sector – and Woven Captial, Toyota’s $800 million global investment fund for mobility projects – says a lot about where autonomy is headed. .
AV investments fell nearly 60 percent year over year
True, and if TechCrunch noted, it’s not quite at the level of the nine-digit acquisition and financing race we saw just a few years ago. Those moves saw things like Ford and Volkswagen’s investments in Argo, General Motors’ acquisition of Cruise Automation, and Uber’s ill-fated foray into self-driving taxis.
But Toyota’s new CEO has made “city-integrated autonomous mobility” his top priorities for the future. And aside from the only theoretically lucrative robotaxi business, new improvements are coming every year to passenger car ADAS features that help drivers navigate traffic and protect them from dangerous situations in new ways.
Foretellix specializes in verifying and validating the safety and reliability of autonomous systems. In this case, the company is using supercomputing to virtually test for millions of combinations of scenarios a car could encounter, including extreme edge cases. Ziv Binyamini, CEO of Foretellix, said that the trucking units at Daimler and Volvo are already customers.
“Autonomous vehicles are extremely complex, but the smallest mistake can do a lot of damage,” said Binyamini. “So, how do you test the system, in all possible situations, all possible scenarios, and there are millions and millions of them?”
Both the speed of implementation and ensuring safety will be necessary to get to where most automakers want to go, which is the so-called level 4 autonomy: a high degree of automation where a vehicle may or may not have a steering wheel and controls for the driver needs. all. This would be key to most major automakers’ goals of significantly reducing traffic, as well as accidents, injuries and fatalities, not to mention future subscription revenue and potential robotaxi businesses.
“Autonomous vehicles are extremely complex, but the smallest mistake can cause a lot of damage”
In the meantime, advanced autonomy is making headlines more for high-profile accidents and mistakes than for breakthroughs that improve urban quality of life. GM’s Cruise robotaxi operation has drawn the ire of San Francisco residents after traffic jams and at least one collision with a bus, and Austin’s traffic accidents haven’t done much to get residents up on the idea either.
And Tesla’s Autopilot and so-called Full Self-Driving systems, arguably the most groundbreaking automated technologies available for passenger cars, continue to fall victim to lawsuits and investigations. Nevertheless, Elon Musk’s future still hinges on self-driving cars. That of the Wall Street Journal Tim Higgins recently reported that one of the reasons for Tesla’s rapid price cuts this year is to get as many buyers into cars as possible now and later gamble the company’s future on self-driving subscription revenue.
Don’t think he’s the only one with such an idea, even if Tesla is willing to deal with it faster than others. Even after Ford withdrew its investment in Argo AI, it still created a new division called Latitude AI to do much of the same work internally — and staffed by hundreds of former Argo employees. And Ford has already introduced a “hands-free, eyes on” version of its BlueCruise ADAS lineup, where drivers don’t have to keep their hands on the wheel as long as in-vehicle cameras detect they’re paying attention to the road.
GM didn’t take 2022 as a lesson to slow down either. In addition to the Cruise Bolts buzzing through Austin with no one in it, it’s accelerating the deployment of its purpose-built Origin robotaxi shuttles there, too, and hopes to open them up to customer rides within a few months. On the consumer side, the next big thing will be the Ultra Cruise ADAS system, which also allows for hands-off driving as long as the human pilot pays attention. That system will launch late this year or early 2024, albeit in limited quantities, in the Cadillac Celestiq luxury EV.
Even if level 4 autonomy is the goal, Binyamini still describes it as a “moonshot”. But he said that while he predicts the eventual deployment of robotaxis in urban environments, more conservative developments are also underway to improve driver assistance systems in passenger cars on the road. These include Level 2 Plus and Level 3 ADAS systems, which are available on just about every new car sold today, as well as last-mile solutions for vans and automating certain parts of long-haul transportation.
Still just a “moonshot”?
He added that deep automation is already prevalent in industries like mining, where companies don’t have to worry about traffic regulations or traffic and simply need a faster and safer way to get difficult work done.
“I think there’s an adjustment of overall autonomy to focus on more realistic, achievable goals,” said Binyamini.
Still, he added: “The whole industry is investing in autonomy. There is no delay.”
But more than ever, it will be up to these AV companies to realize their ultimate robotaxi dreams and prove they can work more safely than humans. Otherwise — and much to the chagrin of investors everywhere — you have to wonder how much more downturn fully self-driving cars can handle before they’re tossed into the same dustbin as flying cars.