The Argo.ai owner who was buried
The Gartner Advertising Curve is the lingua franca for the start space. The stages are Technology Trigger, Peak of Inflated Expectations, Valley of Disillusionment, Slope of Enlightenment, and Productivity Plateau. Where do autonomous vehicles (AVs) fit in this framework?
It depends on who you are talking to and what lens they are using.
Lately, the dreaded term “through disillusionment” is being thrown around haphazardly in the AV space. The trigger? Closure of Argo.ai. The same journalists who racked up the positive hype about automated driving a few years ago are now racking up their demise. And they have taken the confusion of facts to a new level.
noise to signal ratio
There have been no shortage of voices shouting from the rooftops. The most damning articles are based on Anthony’s views.”autonomous cars are going nowhere“Levandowski and George”AVs are a scamHotz. Both were pivotal figures in the early years of commercial autonomous vehicle development, brash pioneers with the “move fast and break things” startup mentality. Now, there are thousands of people deeply rooted in this space who have a deep understanding of what’s really going on in the AV world today. It amazes me that major publications would quote these two gentlemen as if they were “the” authoritative voice. They have the right to express their opinion, but perhaps due to their notoriety they have been quoted massively from the original articles as if they were from sensei.
As another example of negative media claims based on scant evidence, Crunchbase News published an article titled “road to bankruptcy” which analyzed six AV startups based on Crunchbase data. Two of the examples were from several years ago when very different dynamics were at play; these are not relevant now. One of the examples was about the trucking squad, a unique use case whose insights cannot be used to comment on the industry as a whole. Only three were contemporaries and all were focused on road transport.
One of the three, TuSimple, is in a category of its own in terms of self-immolation unrelated to market forces.
The only valid examples used by the article to make a crystal ball in today’s world, at least on the trucking side, were Aurora and Kodiak. Both companies are grappling with uncertainty and funding challenges, though their CEOs are refuting premature claims of their impending demise. The jury is out on them, we’ll see what happens. Simply put, the questions raised about these two companies cannot legitimately be used to frame the entire audiovisual space.
Part 3 of this “AV Reality Check” will focus on trucking; I will have much more to say on this subject.
Re-Frame: a small detail of the history of Argo that changes everything
Coverage of the Argo shutdown emphasized the cessation of development and testing of its autonomous urban fleet. Argo was aiming to get into the same game as Cruise and Waymo: a tall order, and they had started late.
Argo owners, Ford and Volkswagen, based on their investments in 2017 and 2020 respectively, have shifted gears to take advantage of the immense knowledge generated by the Argo team to move to advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Nothing new there; Most of the major high-tech auto companies moved away from fully automated driving for personal cars a few years ago. Honda and Mercedes introduced SAE Level 3 capability in 2021, which allows drivers to fully surrender driving to the vehicle while remaining available to retake control when called upon, followed by BMW and Volvo Cars this year. By gaining a lot of internal experience from Argo, Ford and VW returned to their traditional market and substantially increased their competitiveness in ADAS.
In his November article “Keep calm… and carry on: AV technology is hard, but it’s here to stay”, John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, called the overreaction of journalists “a farce”. According to his review of the AV landscape, “the picture is positive.”
He offered an insightful take that can only come from an auto industry veteran, noting that Argo’s move was “a change in capital spending and pretty bland in the long haul of disruptive businesses and technologies, especially those that they could sink or swim on government rules. .”
So what’s the biggest news about Argo? Earlier this year, in talks with Ford and VW, Amazon was ready to invest “several hundred million dollars” in Argo, it reported. Bloomberg. Amazon wanted to harness Argo’s self-driving skills to automate its huge fleet of electric vans that Rivian now delivers. The deal fell through because VW was wary of sharing control with Amazon.
Wait a minute! Let’s see if I have this clear; Argo had a suitor on the doorstep with big bags of money and (apparently) a lot of confidence in Argo’s technology. Organizational dynamics, not money, blew the deal. So while experts say the end of AV is near, one of the world’s largest corporations, a leader in AV development and implementation, is eager to expand its AV footprint even further.
Clearly the blanket headline about the fate of Argo and the state of AV development really should have been “Amazon is aiming to invest hundreds of millions in automating its huge fleet of electric vans.”
Just because Amazon was thwarted by the Germans (perhaps for good reason), how likely is it that they went home with their tails between their legs and just gave up? No.
Instead, I’m sure there are some very interesting discussions going on between Amazon and other AV developers capable of supporting urban driving for their Rivian trucks. And Amazon, like most of the other key AV betting players, sees no need to talk about it.
Keep your powder dry, naysayers. There is no guarantee that AVs will be a success. But as developers, customers, and investors continue to work quietly to achieve the desired result, hold the fire until you actually have something to work with.
Disclosure: I am an advisor to Gatik, Plus and RRAI.
Watch this space! The second part of this series will focus on autonomous cars and the third part will focus on autonomous trucks.