Blog: Walking on, Walking on the Moon

Article By : Colin Barnden

Any outstanding scientific achievement operating as a loss-making business dies when the funding stops. Where do we think the AV industry stands today?

Those of a similar vintage to me, otherwise known as forty-or-fifty-blah, will instantly recognize that line from The Police — that’s the band, not the cops. Close your eyes and breathe and you’ll recall Sting’s vocals laid over the hypnotic bass and lead guitar riffs from a song that helped define our salad days. For Gen-Z readers wondering what I am talking about, the video is below.

Join me on a tour of music, moon walking and supersonic air travel and let’s see if looking back can offer us any clues to the future of autonomous driving.

Walking on the Moon was released in 1979 — it’s so ancient that it predates MTV! — and a decade after Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, as commander of Apollo 11 in July 1969. This video captures the historic moment in a glorious low-resolution reminder of that prehistoric era technologists call B.G. – before Google.

The history books tell us the last human to walk on the moon was Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, in December 1972. Humankind’s moon walking days thus lasted about 40 months — shorter than a presidential term. It was an amazing scientific achievement, but of no commercial value, so NASA stopped.

Similarly, Concorde was a commercial airliner that flew at twice the speed of sound, or about 150 percent faster than the Boeing 737. By coincidence, Concorde made its maiden flight a couple of months before the Apollo 11 mission, in March 1969. Like walking on the moon, Concorde didn’t make money either and stopped flying in 2003.

Concorde might have transported you from JFK to London in record time, but it was an epic business failure and only fourteen aircraft ever flew commercially. Compare that with production of almost 10,500 Boeing 737s and we see that history teaches us a clear lesson: The most technologically advanced solution to a problem is no guarantee of commercial success.

Any outstanding scientific achievement operating as a loss-making business dies when the funding stops — this is the brutal reality of capitalism. Experience teaches us over and over again that capitalism and safety rarely fit well together, which is why we need regulators, lawmakers, investigators — and prosecutors.

Back to the future

“Why AVs? To save lives!” I have now listened to a lifetime’s worth of podcasts in which executives from AV companies make this baseless prediction. AV technology remains firmly in the R&D phase and we could have reasonably expected collaborative research on such an important subject. Instead we got collaborative propaganda.

According to figures recently publicized by the UN Road Safety Collaboration (UNRSC) for the Stockholm Declaration, road traffic crashes kill more than 1.35 million people every year, with over 90 percent of these casualties occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Here in a single statistic we see the hypocrisy of the AV industry and its evangelical mission to save lives. Yes, to save rich lives.

Though tragic, the 37,000 lives lost annually on U.S. highways equates to less than 3 percent of the global total. Presumably then it falls to bodies such as the UNRSC, Global NCAP and the Road Safety Alliance to advocate for safety in developing nations, where most of the deaths occur but where VCs won’t make money. Take a really good look at the ugly face of capitalism, folks.

As the clear tech leader and poster child for all things “self-driving,” how does Waymo respond to the tragedy of more than 25,000 road traffic deaths worldwide each week? Here are three examples:

With such hubris and swagger, Waymo doesn’t look at all like a company serious about road safety. Instead it looks like an obnoxious trust fund kid that knows everything about spending money and nothing about earning a living. Perhaps Waymonster would have been a more appropriate name.

Sundar Pichai appears to have lost patience and told John Krafcik to secure outside investment, resulting in Waymo announcing its initial fundraise of $2.25 billion at the beginning of March. Waymo declined to disclose the valuation that the fundraising was made at, yet asks us to believe in its vision of the future of the Waymo Driver. This isn’t how you build trust, John.

Considering that Morgan Stanley cut its Waymo valuation by 40 percent to $105 billion only in September, it was reasonable to assume the actual figure was humiliatingly south of that. The valuation is reported to have been $30 billion. Ouch. Magical thinking, meet harsh reality.

Waymo’s valuation collapse will have implications for future fundraises by other industry players such as Aurora, Voyage and Zoox, which are all rapidly burning cash and are presumably even further away from the commercial deployment of their technology.

The short-term picture is thus: Investor patience for AV promises is running out; the automotive industry is mired in recession; the economic impact of the covid-19 virus is unknown; and equity markets are extremely volatile.

Rather than save lives, many AV companies may die long before the technology is commercialized. History teaches us what happens to capital-intensive tech companies when investors say stop and the cash runs out: The future becomes the past in a heartbeat — just ask Wingcast.

So what if we walked on the moon?
It is said that while NASA spent millions developing pens that would write in space, the Russians just took pencils. While this is surely an urban legend, it is also a helpful reminder that the most complicated and technologically advanced solution to a problem is not automatically better than a simple one.

The greatest automotive safety innovations of recent decades have been mundane passive systems: Anti-lock brakes, airbags and seat belts. Today there are more than 1.5 billion light vehicles in use worldwide, almost 90 percent of which are SAE Level 0 with no assisted driving features whatsoever. Practically all the safety gains from the installation of driver assistance and monitoring technology into mass market vehicles is still ahead of us.

Anyone who listened to the WeCrashed podcast about the end of the WeWork dream has likely had a foretaste of the next chapter of the AV story. WeWork’s messianic mission of Elevating the World’s Consciousness was perilously close to the AV industry’s evangelical mission of saving lives.

Like shared offices, demand is guaranteed for robo-taxis; the Waymo Driver; autonomous shuttles such as the GM Cruise Origin; and even some of the crazier ideas like autonomous coffee and pizza delivery. The unknown is simply whether these services can ever scale to operate as profitable businesses or if — like WeWork, walking on the moon, and supersonic air travel — the Waymonster and other AV companies are just capital incineration machines with a great future behind them.

Welcome to the end of your salad days AV industry. It is time to grow up, act responsibly and earn a living. This comes to us all, eventually.

Colin Barden, a regular columnist for EE Times and principal analyst at Semicast Research, is ‘seriously skeptical’ about just about everything. He confesses his patience has expired with all the grandiose autonomous vehicle suppliers.

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