Companies Have Spent $16 Billion On Autonomous Vehicles

Handbuilt co-conspirator Tom Van Heeke (GM) shared this with me via a tweet on the subject this morning– that companies have spent $16 billion in recent years developing autonomous vehicle technology.┬áThe Information’s Amir Efrati writes that “billions more will likely be needed before the technology is ready for primetime.” It’s unclear that we’ve actually made much progress. But Ford sure likes talking about their Mobility Corridor!

Wow. That’s a hell of a lot of money to spend developing a technology that has no proven path toward profitability or, indeed, revenue at all. Mobility-as-a-Service, or MaaS? We already pay periodized sums for car ownership– it’s called insurance- so this isn’t a crazy idea. But simply shifting to a new model of consumption doesn’t really make the world a better place. The value proposition of autonomous vehicles eliminating accidents and congestion is certainly exciting. But it’s diametrically opposed with what the automakers are dumping money into– developing and selling SUV’s and trucks, trucks trucks.

Beyond the mountains of policy obstacles, it’s even debatable whether autonomous vehicles will even be able to help companies like Lyft or Uber achieve profitability. I am by no means the first person to point this out. We’re certainly getting a lot of data out of it! One just hopes it can inform better citybuilding, better mobility solutions, and isn’t just complete vaporware. Like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. Oh, wait, though– all of those data are privately controlled and privately owned. Well, there goes that silver lining.

$16 billion over four years is the equivalent to Amtrak’s entire capital and operating budgets. It’s almost like maybe we should invest in proven technologies that remain completely underdeveloped? Like fixed route transit? Maybe? Imagine! Maybe I could get that high-speed train to Chicago some day.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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