The hype cycle of autonomous vehicles

By Rayla Bellis

Several recent articles have addressed a significant shift in public perception toward autonomous vehicles over the course of 2018. In late 2017, industry leaders like Waymo, Uber, and Tesla were testing fully driverless cars and preparing for commercial launches of driverless taxi services. Tesla was even selling advanced orders of a “full self-driving” upgrade for its vehicles. While some studies and reports pointed out the challenges AVs are likely to pose to communities, or raised skepticism about the rosier claims around safety, timing, and level of adoption, in general transportation industry and public expectations were high.

However, 2018 was a bad year for AVs. In March, Uber drastically scaled back its testing activities after an Uber vehicle with a safety driver struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ. Shortly after, a Tesla Model X car hit a concrete lane divider, killing the passenger inside. Tesla also saw several other auto-pilot related mishaps without fatalities in 2018, including cars crashing into stationary vehicles.

Meanwhile, Waymo—generally recognized as the leader in AV technology—failed to deliver on assertions it made while promoting its new Waymo One service, which launched in December in Phoenix. Waymo had advertised that the service would be fully driverless and commercially available to the public, but the new service has safety drivers and is only available to a limited subset of Waymo’s existing test customers.

With the industry leaders so much further behind than anticipated, some consumers are wondering if deployment they previously thought was around the corner could take decades. Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, has even admitted that a self-driving car that can drive in any condition, on any road, without ever needing a human to take control may never exist.

An article in Ars Technica, which profiles what happened to all of the major and medium-sized AV companies in 2018, suggests that we may be experiencing the second phase of a typical “hype cycle” for new technology—a period of pessimistic overreaction after an initial period of too much optimism. The events of 2018 have stopped some of the claims that AVs are a silver bullet that will solve the country’s mobility challenges, but the current disillusionment may not be warranted either.

In fact, the article notes that a number of smaller startups actually saw success in 2018 with more limited taxi, shuttle, or delivery services. For example, one startup, Nuro, is building small, fully autonomous delivery vehicles that do not have space for a human driver. Nuro struck a deal with Krogerin 2018 and began delivering groceries using its fully autonomous vehicles in December. A company called Drive.ai is offering self-driving shuttle services in Texas cities Frisco and Arlington—paid for in Arlington by the city through a federal grant. Another company, Voyage, is offering autonomous taxi service at the Villages in Florida, one of the largest retirement communities in the country.

These smaller startups may have a more viable business model, the article suggests. By focusing on services in low-speed, geographically limited environments, they may be able to become fully driverless and profitable without millions of miles of testing like the larger companies. They may then be able to iteratively improve their service with the advantage of real-world feedback.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.