Research firm Gartner has moved autonomous drive technology into the "trough of disillusionment" portion of its "hype cycle" tracker, a signal that enthusiasm for self-driving vehicles may be waning.
Startups and massive tech and auto companies are reassessing their assumptions about autonomous vehicles. Until recently, the perception has been that self-driving cars would speed the adoption and the underlying economics of ride-hailing. But as technological development of autonomous cars has slowed and human-driven ride-hailing operations such as Uber and Lyft have remained unprofitable, the vision of ubiquitous robotaxis is getting fresh scrutiny.
Though autonomous on-demand mobility is still a massive opportunity, the threat of it suddenly disrupting transportation as we know it is fading into the deep future.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Uber. Under founder Travis Kalanick, Uber was guided by a vision of rapid expansion of ride-hailing followed by a wholesale conversion to self-driving rides. This potent vision made Uber one of the world's most valuable private companies, and fueled the influx of venture capital dollars that has been subsidizing its existing business and the development of autonomous vehicles.
Now, under new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber seems to be pivoting to a different vision of its opportunity: less of an end-to-end vehicle-based mobility service and more of a multimodal platform.
Not only has Uber expanded its platform to include bicycles, scooters and public transit, it has said that it would allow third-party autonomous vehicles on its platform, and there are even rumors that it could sell its in-house autonomous drive technology development team. Moving toward an end state that more closely reflects Amazon's online marketplace than an autonomous cab service may in part reflect the challenges of ride-hailing economics and autonomous drive technology development.
It also suggests a deeper revelation: New technologies on their own don't always offer enough unique advantages to single-handedly shift consumption patterns.
The rise of the smartphone has created what appears to be an unrealistic mental model for mobility. The public keeps expecting new technologies with specific but limited advantages, such as electric and autonomous cars or ride-hailing, to transform mobility consumption as rapidly and totally as the iPhone has changed communication and computing, but none of them offers the same intrinsic advantage over the incumbent. What's exciting about Uber's move toward a multimodal platform strategy is that it breaks that assumption, and works from the assumption that the way to change consumption patterns is simply to offer choice.
Mobility in this country has been monopolized by the car for a century, and if no one technology can surpass it in every meaningful way then the only way to break that monopoly is to foster conscious consumption of mobility. What a multimodal app allows is for consumers to find the right mode for any given trip. By connecting the type of mobility they need in a given moment with the mode of mobility most appropriate to it, Uber can begin fostering a new and more conscious approach to mobility consumption.
Even with this kind of choice, changing consumption patterns will take time. Technology always moves faster than our ability to understand and optimize it. But once an "Amazon of mobility" emerges, which appears to be the model Uber is pursuing, that change can begin. In the long run, this shift will help every form of new mobility technology. But for now, it means Uber needs to get past its obsession with autonomous cars as the solution to all our mobility challenges.
— Edward Niedermeyer