Big OEMs wouldn't mind a robocar slowdown one bit
We continue to see lots of reports of a "pull back" on robocars, a "winter" of sorts. It is often presented as "the problem was harder than people expected" I discussed some of this in the prelude to my 2018 year in review.
As I indicated, reading these reports it seems like this issues is about 60% due to unrealistic public expectations now facing a reality the industry has already known and mostly been honest about, and the rest a mix of the very common delays in any common software technology, and only a small portion of the "it's harder than we expected" that people are reporting.
The public's expectations were and are due to a number of factors. Elon Musk, with his predictions of "soon, you will summon your car from New York" and general feeling that Tesla is close to having a full self driving car play a big role. Until recently, Tesla even took money from people for "full self drive" to be delivered later as a software update. They no longer offer that on the web site and warn you if you insist on ordering it. As I and many others predicted, it will need hardware upgrades. I think serious hardware upgrades.
There is one factor not being talked about in the idea of a pull-back. Namely that the big car companies would not mind a slowdown at all, and so will happily confirm this narrative, whether it is true or not. The reality is these companies were dragged into this. No industry relishes the arrival of a new technology which will turn it upside down. Those are dangerous waters, and while some car companies will thrive, several will fall. Every sane OEM wants to continue the world where they were making good money selling the same cars they always made to customers, making incremental improvements.
The arrival of electric was forced by Tesla, and the arrival of Robocars by Google. I remember talking to the robocar teams at car OEMs in the early part of this decade. Those teams had existed for some time, but they had modest budgets and were considered far-future R&D. Then Google came out of stealth, and the press were writing "The future of the car is coming from a search engine company." Car OEMs did not like that one bit. So suddenly the small teams became big teams with big budgets. Major efforts took place to sell the message that car OEMs were not irrelevant, that the robocar of the future would come from them, because Silicon Valley doesn't know how to make cars.
(It's true, that Silicon Valley still has much to learn about making cars. But it's a mistake to think it can't learn, or that it can't simply pay car manufacturers to contract manufacture cars. The old knowledge of how to make cars is deep, but it's old and thus for sale at reasonable prices.)
For the car OEMs that have got serious robocar efforts going, they want to be one of the winners, but they would be happy to have more time. Even though people will die in vast numbers manually driving their products while we wait. On the plus side, they are working hard on ADAS to cut down that number in the meantime.
The real "winter"
The small amount of pull-back that is not about public perception comes from a few factors.
- We're notoriously bad at estimating complex software timelines. We're bad even when we take into account how bad we are. Even the best project managers look at their realistic timeline for a project, which might suggest it will take 2 to 5 years, and talk about how it can happen in 2 years. It might, but that's not the most likely outcome. In this case, the range is large -- 2 to 10 years, making this worse.
- For those with less experience, there is misunderstanding of the 90/10 rule which in robocars is the 99/1 rule. The first 99% takes 1% of the time. The last 1% takes 99% of the time. It's "easy" to produce a car that can drive a nice demo loop and stay in its lanes or drive the highway 99% or even 99.9% of the time. Sweating the details is hard, which is why Waymo is still going slow after 10 million miles of testing.
- There are legitimately people who did not understand how hard it really is.
- The talk of "Level" 5 as a quasi-real thing blinded some to the reality that these vehicles will only operate in certain roads and driving situations for a long time. It seems that some people thought they were promised this "level" some time in the early 2020s, which was hopefully never promised.
- The Uber fatality has raised public fear and with it developer caution. Everybody knew an injury accident would happen some day. An early fatality due to really bad practices was less anticipated, and has, as would be expected, used up a fair bit of the public's tolerance for error.
- We're seeing expected blowback from the public as it gets first exposure to real use of these cars. In prototype form -- and in Uber's case hurting people -- you expect the public to react in a way they did not when it was all hypothetical.
The reality remains the same. The best teams will be moving into pilot projects this year and the next, with other teams coming later. Once the pilot projects are underway, we'll learn more about where the remaining issues are and how the public reacts to the technology. While people like to throw out dates, the real release date has always been "when a team can convince its lawyers and board that the technology is safe enough to deploy without creating massive risk for the company." That's a milestone, not a date. There are more date-less milestones, such as:
- When a team can deploy safely over a driving region that is commercially viable
- When a team is ready to make the massive investment to hit critical mass in that region
- When that project proves a workable business model in that region
- When the regulations are nailed down
- When the project can expand to more than a few cities
- When the business model gets accepted to eliminate the need for the early subsidies
- When the business model and deployment get good enough to cause significant numbers of people to replace car ownership with ride-based service
- When the service can expand to other countries
- When the technology can handle new classes of road conditions, such as snow, or chaotic driving
There are more milestones to come. The date of none are certain, though as time goes on we get better ideas about how things are progressing.
And yes, people will continue to imagine fake dates, or believe too much in projections of earliest theoretical dates, and there will be people disappointed.
But it will come. And if the car OEMs slow down too much, they will face the thing they feared when they sped up. Namely that when a big disruption comes, often none of the incumbents survive it.