Technology behind self-driving cars has reached a stalemate

13. december 2022 kl. 15:40
Technology behind self-driving cars has reached a stalemate
Illustration: Bigstock / Bilanola.
The progress of autonomous vehicles in recent years is negligible. Investors are now starting to pull out and manufacturers are shutting down, all while Tesla struggles with an increasing number of fatal accidents.
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In September, the research and consulting company Gartner published its annual “Hype Cycle for AI”, which reviews developments within AI. Despite billions of investments, massive hype, and high expectations for self-driving cars, Gartner declared that the development of autonomous vehicles has stalled at the stage of the hype cycle called the “Trough of Disillusionment”:

“Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters,” Gartner writes about the low point of disillusionment.

At the time of writing, it is exactly two months since the Hype Cycle for AI came out, and one must already admit that Gartner seems to have hit the nail on the head. Innovation has stagnated, investors are pulling back, lawsuits are lined up, and then there is the whole question of Tesla’s criminal liability in 17 fatal car accidents.


Last month, Ford and Volkswagen pulled the plug on Argo AI, one of the larger and more well-respected developers of self-driving cars, in which Ford and Volkswagen have together invested almost DKK 26 billion.

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But now the two giants have given up on Argo AI, which meant that in October, the company suddenly announced that it was shutting down and that all of the company’s employees, businesses, operations, and tests would immediately cease or be transferred to the company’s main investors, Ford and Volkswagen :

“In coordination with our shareholders, the decision has been made that Argo AI will not continue on its mission as a company. Many of the employees will receive an opportunity to continue work on automated driving technology with either Ford or Volkswagen, while employment for others will unfortunately come to an end,” read a statement from Argo AI.

According to Wired, Ford’s management has explained the decision by saying that it simply does not make sense to invest in self-driving cars. Ford’s CEO Jim Farley said, among other things, that Argo AI taught them “that we will have a very long road” before being able to truly call a car “self-driving”, and that it will take five years or longer “before you could actually get to something that started to generate a meaningful business”.

Tesla’s accidents

Tesla, perhaps the world’s best-known developer of autopilot features, has also run into trouble.

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The U.S. traffic authority, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has announced that Tesla vehicles with Autopilot have been involved in two new fatal accidents. This is the 17th time in just over a year that NHTSA has registered car accidents with fatal consequences connected to Tesla’s Autopilot.

According to The Register, Tesla has been involved in 17 out of 18 fatal car accidents since June 2021, when the NHTSA began recording and investigating accidents in which Autopilot features were turned on.

And the traffic authority is not the only one after Tesla. The U.S. Department of Justice also takes issue with Tesla’s many fatal accidents. At the same time, the Department of Justice also notes that both Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk constantly market their cars as being “fully self-driving”, even though none of Tesla’s current models on the market exceed SAE Level 2. So, very far from SAE Level 5, which is the level of autonomy at which a car can be called fully self-driving.

SAE Levels of Driving Automation

Level 0: No driving automation.

Level 1: Driver assistance.

Level 2: Partial driving automation.

Level 3: Conditional driving automation.

Level 4: High driving automation.

Level 5: Full driving automation.

Source: SAE

According to Reuters, the ministry has therefore launched an official investigation into “whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design imbue customers with a false sense of security, inducing them to treat Teslas as truly driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel with potentially deadly consequences.”

Currently, the car manufacturer’s website contains a video in which a Tesla drives through relatively dense city traffic while the driver never touches the steering wheel. At the beginning of the video it says:

"The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”

Screenshot from Tesla’s Autopilot advertisement video. Illustration: Tesla.

Investors: The fun ends now!

Even at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, the mood is not exactly high when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

This week, Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai received an open letter from the hedge fund management company TCI Fund Management Limited, which owns shares in Alphabet worth more than DKK 43 billion.

In the letter, the fund management company vents in remarkably specific terms its dissatisfaction with Alphabet continuing to heavily invest in Waymo, formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project:

“Waymo has not justified its excessive investment and its losses should be reduced dramatically,” the clear message to the Alphabet management reads.

TCI Fund Management Limited also justifies its position with the fact that there is no faith left in self-driving cars. At the same time, they also point to Ford’s argument for shutting down Argo AI:

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“Unfortunately, enthusiasm for self-driving cars has collapsed and competitors have exited the market. Ford and Volkswagen recently decided to shut down their self-driving car venture, saying: ‘We have looked at this every way you can and we just see the profitability a long way out.’”

Autonomy is not inevitable

Those who have followed the development of autonomous vehicles in recent years will hardly be surprised by the developments in recent months. Gartner’s conclusions about self-driving cars have not been prophetic, even though it may seem so.

In fact, experts and researchers alike have been trying to warn the public for years that we are very, very far from reaching the goal of fully self-driving cars that are safe enough to be widely used. Several go even further and directly warn that self-driving cars will never become a reality.

Even so, there are still those who are trying to convince the world that fully self-driving cars are just around the corner. But few have formulated the realities more clearly and elegantly than American journalist and researcher Meredith Broussard:

“There’s nothing inevitable about autonomous vehicles.”

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