The shutdown of Argo.AI is a blow to the self-driving dream (and a loss for its carmaker backers). But is transport CVC merely maturing?

Self-driving cars on a beach road
Photo by Kirill Tonkikh on Unsplash

A decade or so ago and noted investor Peter Thiel bemoaned the lack of flying cars. With Joby, Volocopter, Lilium and others now taking to the skies it seems progress has been made there quicker than the other dream of science fiction writers through the ages – self-driving or autonomous cars.

McKinsey put the total invested in autonomous driving at more than $100bn since 2010, according to a Financial Times report and the losses are starting to pile up.

Car makers Volkswagen (VW) and Ford’s autonomous vehicle unit, Argo.AI, has just shut down. Ford has taken a “$2.7bn non-cash, pre-tax impairment on its investment in Argo AI, resulting in an $827m net loss for Q3 [its third quarter],” the automaker added, and said it would focus on advanced driver assistance (called L2 and L3 in industry jargon), which has gained greater acceptance.

Argo was pursuing level four and five autonomy – basically driverless cars – but folded its L2/3 technology into Ford.

VW disclosed a $2.6bn investment in Argo AI in June 2020 and in its Q3 results said it had taken a “€1.9bn non-cash impairment charge following the group’s withdrawal from its investment in Argo AI,” but has not given up on the dream. It said instead its automotive software subsidiary, Cariad, was investing $2bn in a partnership with Chinese chipmaker Horizon Robotics after a deal with parts maker Robert Bosch, which in April made its Five acquisition.

Argo.ai’s struggles followed the earlier sale of Uber’s driverless car unit to Aurora in preference of a deal with Motional — the startup that works with ride-hailing peer Lyft to offer autonomous vehicle rides in Vegas – while other startups, such as Faction, are flying more under the radar.

Some are still driving ahead

Not all autonomous driving projects are struggling. Shares in chipmaker Intel’s Mobileye driver technology division increased by more than a third on its first day of trading on Wednesday, valuing the company at $23bn, as while its ultimate aim of fully autonomous driving was still “nascent”, its more established “driver assistance” technologies generated $1.4bn in revenue last year, according to the Financial Times (FT).

Google’s Waymo driverless taxis are also finally ready to expand from Phoenix and San Francisco to LA after 13 years and $5.7bn, while Cruise, General Motors’ autonomous vehicle subsidiary, has been operating a fully driverless commercial robotaxi service in San Francisco since June.

Last year, Didi Autonomous Driving was expected to raise $300m – two-thirds of which was from the Guangzhou Automobile Group and its capital investment arm. Since Didi’s autonomous driving unit split from Didi Chuxing back in 2019, the company had raised more than $1.1bn.

Is autonomous driving the wrong target?

For some, the dream of autonomous driving is effectively a distraction from the other big changes impacting the transport industry, such as electrification and sustainability and alternative transport modes and payment models.

Investor Azeem Azhar in his Exponential View blog said: Autonomous passenger cars are a faster horse. The future of transport, like so many technologies, is less about magic than about miniturisation and modularity. The computing industry didn’t grow because mainframes became more powerful, it grew because we made micro-computers. The transport industry won’t get larger with more powerful vehicles either. Micromobility is the new paradigm. Autonomy is just a feature.”

To see exactly how the trends are impacting the world, the Global Mobility Council, chaired by George Kellerman at Toyota’s Woven Planet corporate venturing unit, will hold its meeting later this year and over dinner at the CES conference in Las Vegas in January – contact Amber at aknapp@globalventuring.com for more info.