What’s Self-Driving is the Hype

And I agree with Holman Jenkins’s observations about self-driving cars in his Wall Street Journal column:

It was clear even then what was really going on. Public and press were head over heels for autonomous vehicles. An irresistible, almost mandatory marketing opportunity was born. Google, for the tens of millions it has spent on self-driving runabouts, reaped billions in publicity of the kind that can’t be bought with any advertising budget.

Uber had a perfectly good thing going with ride-sharing, but felt the need to boost its gee-whiz quotient by becoming an autonomous-vehicle pioneer. Apple managed to create a still-vibrating buzz for itself in early 2015 simply by placing a few ads for automotive engineers and leaking word that it was working on a car.

This rising tide lifted many dubious boats. Academics soared to instant prominence by prescribing a universal basic income as the solution for a world where robots suddenly have all the jobs. Traditional car companies like Ford and General Motors , meanwhile, scrambled to brand themselves with autonomous-mobility credibility in hopes of obtaining a sliver of the stock-market favor accruing to Tesla, Apple and Google.

Lately, with signals from its industry sources, the press has finally decided to acknowledge that the autonomous car isn’t just around the corner. It can’t handle inclement weather. It can’t reliably tell a plastic bag blowing across the road from a child on a bicycle and won’t be able to soon.

Waymo, Google’s self-driving sibling, is reportedly set to launch an experiment in commercial service this month restricted to the meticulously mapped roads around its test city of Phoenix. There will still be a human employee on board, and don’t expect Waymo to venture out on Phoenix’s occasional rainy day. Axios, that breathless compendium, now admits after launching its own autonomous vehicle newsletter that true self-driving cars are still “10, 20, 50 years” away.

Toyota was right. For the foreseeable future, autonomous features will mainly serve to stop us from screwing up.

Back during the California Gold Rush of 1849 fortunes were made but most of the big fortunes weren’t made by striking gold. They were made by selling tools and other supplies to miners. I think the same is true for self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence more generally as it has been for eCommerce. The real money is being made by people who are selling the tools to enable people to do it not by the people who are doing it.

Consequently, when Amazon, Apple, or Google tout the imminence of self-driving vehicles, hold onto your wallet.

1 comment… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    On the other hand; Google is moving their trials to charge customers. They wouldn’t do that unless they have confidence in the safety of their product.

    I do not think it will be tech companies that win the autonomous vehicle race; that will be the traditional auto makers. For the auto makers; this is life or death; for the tech companies, it is not.

    But it does raise a question of if there is a business need on managing an autonomous or semi autonomous vehicle fleet. That’s a skill neither the auto makers or the tech companies are good at.

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