Automakers Volkswagen, Ford, and General Motors are betting billions that autonomous driving will get us moving again.
The shock of losing air travel and public transportation has proven one sector of the American workforce to be especially resilient: the road warriors. Though they’re not immune, they’re out in force.
A mass shift to single-occupancy vehicles is occurring nationwide according to new research from Cornell University, which poses a major traffic and pollution problem in many cities. The solution, according to today’s most influential automakers, is to accelerate the development of electric, driverless cars programmed by artificial intelligence.
For real. Our Meet George Jetson! destiny is not only inevitable, it will arrive sooner than we think, now that Volkswagen, the world’s largest motor vehicle manufacturer, and its blue chip competitors have decided it’s a profitable path.
“It goes without saying that we will see various types of driverless cars on our streets soon. Great advances are being made in the necessary technology,” said Herbert Diess, CEO of Volkswagen Group during an interview with the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier. To that end, Volkswagen AG pledged more than a fifth of its vehicles will be electric by 2025, while investing 44 billion euros ($52 billion) on autonomous driving and “mobility services” by 2023.
Enter Big Tech
Companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Argo AI are already enlisted to help create “next-level” driverless vehicles requiring up to 1 billion lines of code, as compared to the mere 20 million lines of code needed for today’s existing navigation systems.
“Today’s vehicles are software intensive and already have more lines of code than fighter jets. In automated vehicles, even more code is required because the system is responsible for the entirety of the dynamic driving task (DDT),” says Edward Straub, DM, Director of the Office of Automation at SAE International, previously known as the Society of Automotive Engineers. DDT is defined as “all of the real-time operational and tactical functions required to operate a vehicle in on-road traffic.”
That amounts to more than weekend drivers realize. Truly driverless automation, explains Staub, is a system that must not only maintain the vehicle’s position in a lane among traffic, it must also detect, process, and issue vehicle control commands that account for “all of the relevant events in the driving environment.” This includes weather-related conditions, road surface conditions, roadway infrastructure—and anything else that could possibly affect the operational domain.
This isn’t a futuristic fantasy. It’s a high-stakes race already in motion between Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors, Amazon, and Tesla to be the first to offer the biggest and best electric vehicle subscription programs *and own* the large-scale production of autonomous vehicles. The trophy is nothing less than a place at the forefront of a global carbon-reducing revolution.
But the road to get there is wildly uneven, and speed isn’t everything. Beyond developing safe AI-powered software, these companies must nail vehicle development at scale, fleet operations, and geographic reach to truly come out on top. “A lot also depends on what authorities in each location approve. That will look different in China, the United States and Europe,” adds Diess.
In the United States, any automaker will have to get on the track Tesla built. Elon Musk’s electric car maker, with a market value of roughly $267 billion, already offers “Tesla Autopilot,” a semi-autonomous navigation system enabling traffic-aware cruise control, self-parking, automatic lane changes, and the ability to summon the car from a garage or parking lot. It isn’t Westworld, or even full self-driving (FSD), it’s driver assistance software — but it’s as close as anyone has come to passing the electric self-driving acid test.
Though driverless dreams still elude Musk and the rest of the world, he continues to not only invest in the space, but is constantly collecting the machine learning data needed to “teach” self-driving to the 550,000 Teslas sold worldwide since the start of 2019, according to Statista. So, we grant him his grandiosity: “If you buy a car that does not have the hardware necessary for full self-driving, it is like buying a horse,” said Elon Musk during an “Autonomy Day” presentation to shareholders in April, 2019.
It’s taken years for traditional automakers to buy into the fantasy. But they’re now fully and irreversibly in the game, with billions invested. Below are the biggest strategic partnerships and acquisitions putting these companies ahead in today’s autonomous race:
Volkswagen Allocates $52 Billion
- June 2020: Volkswagen finalized its $2.6 billion investment in the Pittsburgh-based, self-driving tech startup Argo AI.
- June 2020: Volkswagen Financial Services, a division of Volkswagen, purchased corporate travel startup Voya for an undisclosed sum, combining vehicle fleet and AI-supported corporate travel management (think chat-based booking services with informed humans, not bots) to become a “mobility service.”
- “It’s no longer enough to be a fleet manager. You have to offer the complete mobility package. We are able to manage fleet costs and travel costs to optimize total mobility costs for companies. We think that’s the future,” Knut Krösche, managing director for Volkswagen Leasing, tells Forbes.
General Motors Earmarks $20 Billion
- July 2020: GM announces partnership with electric-vehicle charging operator EVgo to build America’s largest fast-charging network, by adding “2,700 new chargers over the next five years.”
- March 2020: GM announces a $20 billion investment to roll out an electric vehicle for each of its brands starting this year.
- “We will offer EVs from every brand, in every segment and every price point. The path we’re on will get us to an all-electric future profitably,” said CEO Mary Barra in March, during an investor event in Michigan.
Ford Allocates $4 Billion
- Ford is slated to launch its commercial self-driving service in Austin, Miami and Washington DC by 2022, according to a Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC spokesperson.
- February 2017: Ford committed to spending $4 billion through 2023 on the development of its self-driving service, including a $1 billion investment into Argo AI, with a current market valuation of $7.5 billion.
- “Building a safe, scalable and trusted self-driving service, however, is no small task. It’s also not a cheap one,” John Lawler, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles said in a June 2020 blog post.
Amazon Spends Reported $1 Billion
- June 2020: Amazon acquires Zoox, an early developer of autonomous vehicles, to develop its own zero-emissions, autonomous ride-hailing service—complete with proprietary autonomy software.
- Amazon previously invested in autonomous driving startup Aurora, and has tested self-driving trucks powered by Embark.
- “Zoox is working to imagine, invent, and design a world-class autonomous ride-hailing experience,” said Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s CEO, Worldwide Consumer. “Like Amazon, Zoox is passionate about innovation and about its customers, and we’re excited to help the talented Zoox team to bring their vision to reality in the years ahead.”
The benefits of autonomous ride-sharing are pretty straightforward. Most people don’t really need to own a car anymore. In a world where corporate offices play a part-time role in the modern workplace, and on-demand telecommunication is king—car payments, maintenance, and car insurance start to make less and less sense. Why spend thousands, when monthly or annual subscription models can offer on-demand convenience for a fraction of the cost?
To quote tech doyenne Kara Swisher in the New York Times: “Owning a car will soon be as quaint as owning a horse.” She’s spot on if you just look at how quickly modern humans adapt to digital services, either because it’s cool, convenient, or cost-effective. In a few short years, we all went from shopping in stores to shopping online, from reading actual maps to app maps, from dating actual people to trolling avatars! (Or so I’m told).
There’s also the larger societal benefit. The widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is expected to produce fewer fatal crashes and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Who cares about our sentimental attachment to Johnny the Jeep Wrangler, if large swathes of the population can find employment in the next wave of tech-driven manufacturing, and commit to a more carbon-free lifestyle?
We’re nowhere near the finish line. Despite all the hype, full driverless technology hasn’t proven that it performs better than humans. How could it, when it doesn’t exist in the real world yet? Thus far, both technical and regulatory hurdles have stalled the self-driving revolution.
But all that was happening pre-Covid. The crippling of commercial aviation has accelerated the development of autonomous technology to levels never before seen in corporate America. “Non-aviation businesses are more important amid pandemic,” said Larry Culp, CEO of General Electric this week on Bloomberg Television. (Revenue in GE’s aviation business plunged 44% since the onset of the coronavirus).
Suddenly software is equally as important to the future of the auto industry as hardware. And nothing, it seems, can keep deep-pocketed private sector titans from throwing billions at the prospect. Meanwhile, the rest of us are stuck owning the proverbial horse.