November 02, 2022 Blog

Keep Calm... and Ride On: AV Technology is Hard, But it's Here to Stay

By John Bozzella

News that autonomous vehicle company Argo AI would shut down last week set off some handwringing about the viability of AVs and the future of self-driving.

One publication even likened it to the collapse of Bear Stearns in 2008. Yeah, the one that triggered the global financial crisis. Overreactions like that border on the farcical and miss what’s happening with AVs across the country and around the world.

There’s a gap between the huge progress on AV technology (barely 15 years old, by the way) and a growing impatience about when we’ll finally see them in large numbers on the roads.

So, why the hold up? A few things are at play.

First, given what a sea change fully autonomous vehicles represent to the way we’ve been driving for a hundred years, there’s a threshold question about safety. The answer? AVs have a remarkably strong safety record. It’s the top priority of every AV CEO I’ve ever met or worked with.

The occasional software glitch or fender bender deserve scrutiny but receive lopsided attention and ought to be weighed against the tens of thousands of traffic deaths on U.S. roads each year caused by drunk, distracted or reckless humans.

Second, critics say after all the hype and money spent, AVs aren’t even on public roads or capable of serving passengers and businesses. That’s totally wrong.

We surveyed the entire AV landscape recently and it’s a positive picture.

Right now, there are about 50 AV companies operating in 16 states and nearly 90 cities. AVs regularly move passengers in San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas; deliver goods in Houston; and transport freight across the southwest.

Meanwhile, more than 150 distinct autonomous technology programs are operating in Michigan, Washington, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania among other states.

It’s not everywhere. Yet. Unleashing the AV revolution will ultimately depend on the ability of companies to ramp up the number of AVs on the road. This will reduce costs and increase public confidence in the technology.

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving that kind of scale? Government.

Autonomous driving has the attention of Washington, D.C., and state DMVs – and rightly so. Government has a role to play here.

On top of the obvious safety benefits, AVs can provide accessible transportation options for seniors and individuals with disabilities and a chance to reduce traffic congestion and create new jobs and supply chains.

That’s why a federal regulatory framework with oversight and a commitment to move beyond testing to more (and faster) commercial deployment is called for. In the near term, policymakers should update existing motor vehicle rules to better accommodate AVs; raise the cap on the number of AVs able to operate at a time; and launch a national AV pilot or demonstration program.

The longer it takes to get that regulatory structure in place, the more skittish (and less patient) AV developers are going to get, especially when there is competition for capital for other pressing priorities related to electrification and battery manufacturing everywhere.

Even if we don’t get our act together in the U.S., the technology isn’t going away. We’ll cede our AV leadership to China and other nations already setting the right conditions to make AVs a reality.

It’s hard. It’s new. It’s different. But it’s not all that complicated. A federal framework with safeguards, oversight, rules, regulation – and mostly a degree of predictability and certainty for the market – will release the power and potential of AVs.

I’m sorry to see Argo stop operating. It was a great company, stacked with smart people, doing groundbreaking work to advance autonomous driving. Some of that work will carry on at Ford and Volkswagen. (Disclosure: Argo AI was a valued member of my organization. Ford and Volkswagen are too).

But this was a shift in capital spending and fairly unremarkable in the long sweep of business and disruptive technologies – especially those that might sink or swim on government rules.

On the same week of this “seismic” event, Intel’s self-driving unit Mobileye went public, Cruise opened its passenger waitlists for new operations in Phoenix and Austin, and Einride completed the first operational pilot of a fully autonomous, electric heavy duty vehicle without a driver in Tennessee.

There will be winners and losers in AVs, just like in every other red hot, competitive sector in the economy. That competition will bring out the best in companies and engineers.

It’s time to stop with the obituaries. Autonomous vehicles are here to stay. But memo to Washington: folks are getting restless and the rest of the world isn’t standing still.

John Bozzella is president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.