Stating the Obvious

Matthew G. Saroff
4 min readOct 7, 2022

It’s true, it’s going to be a very long time before we see meaningful self driving cars.

This is not a surprise. Even ignoring the equipment issues, things like Lidar versus cameras, the model is fundamentally broken.

AI, or more accurately, “Machine Learning,” involves throwing enormous quantities of data at a computer.

The problem is that this doesn’t create a real model of driving, arguably one of the hardest things most human beings do, but instead a series of statistically derived if … then … else statements.

The thing is that there area actually very few hard and fast universal rules for driving, but rather it consists of more general concepts, which is something that machine learning simply does not do:

The first car woke Jennifer King at 2 a.m. with a loud, high‑pitched hum. “It sounded like a hovercraft,” she says, and that wasn’t the weird part. King lives on a dead-end street at the edge of the Presidio, a 1,500-acre park in San Francisco where through traffic isn’t a thing. Outside she saw a white Jaguar SUV backing out of her driveway. It had what looked like a giant fan on its roof — a laser sensor — and bore the logo of Google’s driverless car division, Waymo.

She was observing what looked like a glitch in the self-driving software: The car seemed to be using her property to execute a three-point turn. This would’ve been no biggie, she says, if it had happened once. But dozens of Google cars began doing the exact thing, many times, every single day.

King complained to Google that the cars were driving her nuts, but the K-turns kept coming. Sometimes a few of the SUVs would show up at the same time and form a little line, like an army of zombie driver’s-ed students. The whole thing went on for weeks until last October, when King called the local CBS affiliate and a news crew broadcast the scene. “It is kind of funny when you watch it,” the report began. “And the neighbors are certainly noticing.” Soon after, King’s driveway was hers again.

Waymo disputes that its tech failed and said in a statement that its vehicles had been “obeying the same road rules that any car is required to follow.” The company, like its peers in Silicon Valley and Detroit, has characterized incidents like this as isolated, potholes on the road to a steering-wheel-free future. Over the course of more than a decade, flashy demos from companies including Google, GM, Ford, Tesla, and Zoox have promised cars capable of piloting themselves through chaotic urban landscapes, on highways, and in extreme weather without any human input or oversight. The companies have suggested they’re on the verge of eliminating road fatalities, rush-hour traffic, and parking lots, and of upending the $2 trillion global automotive industry.

It all sounds great until you encounter an actual robo-taxi in the wild. Which is rare: Six years after companies started offering rides in what they’ve called autonomous cars and almost 20 years after the first self-driving demos, there are vanishingly few such vehicles on the road. And they tend to be confined to a handful of places in the Sun Belt, because they still can’t handle weather patterns trickier than Partly Cloudy. State-of-the-art robot cars also struggle with construction, animals, traffic cones, crossing guards, and what the industry calls “unprotected left turns,” which most of us would call “left turns.”


This, it seems, is the best the field can do after investors have bet something like $100 billion, according to a McKinsey & Co. report. While the industry’s biggest names continue to project optimism, the emerging consensus is that the world of robo-taxis isn’t just around the next unprotected left — that we might have to wait decades longer, or an eternity.

“It’s a scam,” says George Hotz, whose company Inc. makes a driver-assistance system similar to Tesla Inc.’s Autopilot. “These companies have squandered tens of billions of dollars.” In 2018 analysts put the market value of Waymo LLC, then a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., at $175 billion. Its most recent funding round gave the company an estimated valuation of $30 billion, roughly the same as Cruise. Aurora Innovation Inc., a startup co-founded by Chris Urmson, Google’s former autonomous-vehicle chief, has lost more than 85% since last year and is now worth less than $3 billion. This September a leaked memo from Urmson summed up Aurora’s cash-flow struggles and suggested it might have to sell out to a larger company. Many of the industry’s most promising efforts have met the same fate in recent years, including, Voyage, Zoox, and Uber’s self-driving division. “Long term, I think we will have autonomous vehicles that you and I can buy,” says Mike Ramsey, an analyst at market researcher Gartner Inc. “But we’re going to be old.”

Yeah, pretty much. A lot of people have made a lot of money out of this by getting money from rubes