$100 billion later, autonomous vehicles are still a car-wreck

The self-driving car fraud was great business for Uber and Tesla.

Cory Doctorow
6 min readOct 9, 2022

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A chart illustrating the Gartner hype-cycle; racing down the slope from the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ to the ‘trough of disillusionment’ is the staring eye of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, chased by speed-lines. Image: Cryteria (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAL9000.svg CC BY 3.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en Gartner (modified): https://www.gartner.com/en/research/methodologies/gartner-hype-cycle

Autonomous vehicles were always a shell-game. The last time I wrote about them was a year ago, when Uber declared massive losses. Uber’s profitability story was always, “Sure, we’re losing money now, but once we create self-driving cars, we can fire our drivers and make a bundle.”

https://pluralistic.net/2020/09/30/death-to-all-monopoly/#pogo-stick-problem

But Uber never came close to building an AV. After blowing $2.5b, the company invented a car whose mean-distance-to-fatal-crash was half a mile. Uber had to pay another company — $400 million! — to take the self-driving unit off its hands.

It’s tempting to say that Uber just deluded itself into thinking that AVs were a viable, near-term technology. But $2.5b was a bargain, because it allowed the company’s original investors (notably the Saudi royals) to offload their Uber shares on credulous suckers when the company IPOed.

Likewise Tesla, a company that has promised fully self-driving autonomous vehicles “within two years” for more than a decade. The story that Teslas will someday drive themselves is key to attracting retail investors to the company.

Tesla’s overvaluation isn’t solely a product of the cult of personality around Musk, nor is it just that its investors can’t read a balance-sheet and so miss the fact that the company is reliant upon selling the carbon-credits that allow gas-guzzling SUVs to fill America’s streets.

Key to Tesla’s claims to eventual profitability was that AVs would overcome geometry itself, and end the Red Queen’s Race whereby adding more cars to the road means you need more roads, which means everything gets farther apart, which means you need more cars — lather, rinse, repeat.

Geometry hates cars, but Elon Musk hates public transit (he says you might end up seated next to “a serial killer”). So Musk spun this story where tightly orchestrated AVs would best geometry and create big cities served speedy, individualized private vehicles. You could even make passive income from your Tesla, turning it over to drive strangers (including, presumably, serial killers?) around as a taxicab.

But Teslas are no closer to full self-driving than Ubers. In fact, no one has come close to making an AV. In a characteristically brilliant and scorching article for Bloomberg, Max Chafkin takes stock of the failed AV project:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2022-10-06/even-after-100-billion-self-driving-cars-are-going-nowhere

Chafkin calculates that the global R&D budget for AVs has now exceeded $100 billion, and demonstrates that we have next to nothing to show for it, and that whatever you think you know about AV success is just spin, hype and bullshit.

Take the much-vaunted terribleness of human drivers, which the AV industry likes to tout. It’s true that the other dumdums on the road cutting you off and changing lanes without their turn-signals are pretty bad drivers, but actual, professional drivers are amazing. The average school-bus driver clocks up 500 million miles without a fatal crash (but of course, bus drivers are part of the public transit system).

Even dopes like you and me are better than you may think — while cars do kill the shit out of Americans, it’s because Americans drive so goddamned much. US traffic deaths are a mere one per 100 million miles driven, and most of those deaths are due to recklessness, not inability. Drunks, speeders, texters and sleepy drivers cause traffic fatalities — they may be skilled drivers, but they are also reckless.

But even the most reckless driver is safer than a driverless car, which “lasts a few seconds before crapping out.” The best robot drivers are Waymos, which mostly operate in the sunbelt, “because they still can’t handle weather patterns trickier than Partly Cloudy.”

Waymo claims to have driven 20m miles — that is, 4% of the distance we’d expect a human school-bus driver to go before having a fatal wreck. Tesla, meanwhile, has stopped even reporting how many miles its autopilot has mananged on public roads. The last time it disclosed, in 2019, the total was zero.

Using “deep learning” to solve the problems of self-driving cars is a dead-end. As NYU psych prof Gary Marcus told Chafkin, “deep learning is something similar to memorization…It only works if the situations are sufficiently akin.”

Which is why self-driving cars are so useless when they come up against something unexpected — human drivers weaving through traffic, cyclists, an eagle, a drone, a low-flying plane, a deer, even some pigeons on the road.

Self-driving car huxters call this “the pogo-stick problem” — as in “you never can tell when someone will try to cross the road on a pogo-stick.” They propose coming up with strict rules for humans to make life easier for robots.

https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/3/17530232/self-driving-ai-winter-full-autonomy-waymo-tesla-uber

But as stupid as this is, it’s even stupider than it appears at first blush. It’s not that AVs are confused by pogo sticks — they’re confused by shadows and clouds and squirrels. They’re confused by left turns that are a little different than the last left turn they tried.

If you’ve been thinking that AVs were right around the corner, don’t feel too foolish. The AV companies have certainly acted like they believed their own bullshit. Chafkin reminds us of the high-stakes litigation when AV engineer Anthony Levandowski left Google for Uber and was sued for stealing trade secrets.

The result was millions in fines (Levandowski declared bankruptcy) and even a prison sentence for Levandowski (Trump pardoned him, seemingly at the behest of Peter Thiel and other Trumpist tech cronies). Why would companies go to all that trouble if they weren’t serious about their own claims?

It’s possible that they are, but that doesn’t mean we have to take those claims at face-value ourselves. Companies often get high on their own supplies. The litigation over Levandowski can be thought of as a species of criti-hype, Lee Vinsel’s extraordinarily useful term for criticism that serves to bolster the claims of its target:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/02/02/euthanize-rentiers/#dont-believe-the-hype

Another example of criti-hype: the claims about the risks of ubiquitous drone delivery — which, like AVs, is half-bullshit, half self-delusion:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/05/comprehensive-sex-ed/#droned

Today, Levandowski has scaled back his plans to build autonomous vehicles. Instead, he’s built autonomous dump-trucks that never leave a literal sandbox, and trundle back and forth on the same road all day, moving rocks from a pit to a crusher.

$100 billion later, that’s what the AV market has produced.

Image:

Cryteria (modified)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAL9000.svg

CC BY 3.0:
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

Gartner (modified):
https://www.gartner.com/en/research/methodologies/gartner-hype-cycle

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).

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