Editorial: Autonomous vehicles have a long way to go despite billions in investments

In an automotive world always running between monthly sales goals, quarterly earnings and multiyear product cycles, it can be easy to lose track of the sheer scope of this industry’s quest to develop autonomous driving.

The goal remains laudable: Autonomous driving promises to radically improve safety, boost fuel efficiency and free drivers to pursue what may be more productive activities.

Yet the price of this technological pursuit has, at least according to Bloomberg estimates, reached a minimum of $75 billion and counting, with no end in sight and still only the vaguest promise of return on that investment. And that remarkably large figure likely undercounts what has already been spent in time and effort by automakers, suppliers, startups and their investors to develop technology that seeks to create a better-than-human driver.

Autonomous driving R&D has been scattered and inconsistent as different companies pursue what they believe will be a technological edge. Tesla has spent the last six years actively selling a woefully misnamed product it calls Full Self-Driving, even though what it offers is not even close to what the moniker promises. Other automakers have taken a more safety-conscious approach, with some vehicles now able to operate hands-free in limited environments, while still requiring the attention of the driver.

Cruise, General Motors’ autonomous vehicle subsidiary in San Francisco, recently announced an expansion of its limited services to Austin, Texas, and Phoenix, where it hopes to provide driverless rides and commercial deliveries by the end of this year. The generation of meaningful revenue remains around the corner as its services expand further beyond these demonstration phases, the company said.

The cash burn at companies chasing this technology is eye-watering and no doubt duplicative. Argo AI reportedly last week told employees it is shutting down, with parts of the AV startup to be absorbed into main backers Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen.

In addition, consumers have reportedly died believing that their vehicles possessed automated capabilities that they did not have. More will likely do so in the years to come.

Autonomous driving is the industry’s most difficult tech challenge yet. Progress has been made, but the pace indicates decades of work remain before Level 5 autonomy is achieved. The industry should take pains to adjust investor expectations.

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