As a refresher, there are five levels on the road to fully autonomous driving, so let me give you some examples.
Pretty much all premium cars homologated to be sold as new on Western markets now come with Level 1 autonomous driving, which is not exactly fully autonomous at all. For example, if you own a car that beeps at you if it encounters an obstacle in front of it, going as far as slowing down on its own or even stopping by itself then your ride is at Level 1.
Level 2 is just a bit more techy, since cars belonging to this group come with driving assistance systems than can also take over steering, not just the accelerator or brake. If you own a vehicle that has stuff like Active Lane-Keeping Assist or Traffic Jam Assistant, which allows the car to automatically brake, accelerate and switch lanes without driver input then it’s a Level 2.
Level 3 is the (long and treacherous) bridge to fully autonomous driving, since it includes systems that can take full control of the car over long distances, giving the driver freedom to take his eyes from the road for most of a highway trip for example.
It’s treacherous because this is where carmakers like Tesla, and its infamous lidar-free ‘Autopilot’ system is, and for various reasons not every driver understands that it’s not exactly an autopilot system. The driver can’t just take a nap while his or her Level 3 luxury car is barreling at 80 mph on the highway, as they must be aware of their surroundings and be able to take back control of the car at any time.
This is still where most carmakers are, despite all the promises made a few years back, and despite some of them saying that their cars already have the technology to offer Level 4 autonomous driving pre-installed, yet it’s the regulations that are holding them back.
To me, it’s like those ‘HD-Ready’ TV screens from a few years back, which didn’t offer High-Definition but could. Or a car that gets 4 stars out of 5 at Euro NCAP but has all the assistance systems to make it to 5 stars if you pay enough money to unlock them.
Level 4 is where companies like Waymo or Uber are, at least in theory. Considered to be fully automated when it comes to driving, Level 4 cars can handle most driving situations on their own, but they still have a steering wheel and pedals available for the driver, who should remain fit to drive and take over the controls whenever the situation requires it, such the sudden appearance of a ‘road under construction’ zone, a highway pileup, or a bunch of zoo-escaped animals on the road.
You’ve guessed it, Level 5 is where we are no longer talking about cars but about ‘horizontal elevators,’ appliances on wheels that take you from point A to point B. Eventually, when these ‘pods’ arrive, they will have no steering wheel or pedals and will make all drivers obsolete.
I’m not going to say that the technology or regulations aren’t there yet, because in some parts of the world they are, but there is a problem.
Google’s Waymo recently announced that it has ended a two-year effort to sell its in-house developed light detection and ranging (lidar) sensors to other companies.
“We’re winding down our commercial lidar business as we maintain our focus on developing and deploying our Waymo Driver across our Waymo One (ride-hailing) and Waymo Via (delivery) units,” a Waymo spokesperson said in a statement.
As another refresher, Waymo is part of Alphabet Inc, which also owns Google, and has been working on self-driving cars since 2009, back when it was called the ‘Google Self-Driving Car Project.’
A lot of things have happened in those 12 years, including the launch of several public road testing of robo-taxis and even autonomous freight trucks, all powered by proprietary technology that even got ‘borrowed’ by Uber and evolved into a lawsuit at one point.
In an effort to finally make a buck for its continuous efforts, Waymo had started to sell its lidar systems and similar technology to customers in areas like robotics and even farming from bac in 2019.
They tried to sell it to everyone except their rivals, but after 12 years of existence, Waymo is still billions away from making a profit, and has just stopped its largest revenue-making strategy.
According to some unknown sources that are close to the matter, Waymo is planning both in-house developed tech AND external suppliers for its future generation of lidars, which kind of contradicts everything they tried to do until now.
The main question is, is there not a market for autonomous taxis and freight trucks yet? Because to me the answers seems ‘no.’ Hundreds of millions of people would be put out of their jobs if Level 5 autonomous driving is magically overnight, is that not a probable reality that had should have been previously discussed by every company working on self-driving technology?
Like every company, they’re main raison d’être is to make a profit, otherwise they’re just a non-profit foundation, which they clearly aren’t. So, if Waymo, arguably one of the top two companies that has reached the highest levels on the road to fully autonomous driving, is failing to make a dime after 12 years of being at the forefront of this technology, what are the chances of it to reach mass market in the years it was supposed, at least according to press releases from the 2010-2020 decade?