Seven months after workers finished installing solar panels atop the Garcia family home near Stanford University, the system is little more than a roof ornament. The problem: The local utility’s equipment is so overloaded that there is no place for the electricity produced by the panels to go.
“We wasted 30,000-something dollars on a system we can’t use,” Theresa Garcia said. “It’s just been really frustrating.”
President Biden is pushing lawmakers and regulators to wean the United States from fossil fuels and counter the effects of climate change. But his ambitious goals could be upended by aging transformers and dated electrical lines that have made it hard for homeowners, local governments and businesses to use solar panels, batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and other devices that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the equipment on the electric grid was built decades ago and needs to be upgraded. It was designed for a world in which electricity flowed in one direction — from the grid to people. Now, homes and businesses are increasingly supplying energy to the grid from their rooftop solar panels.
to electricity generated by solar, wind, nuclear and other zero-emission energy sources. Yet the grid is far from having enough capacity to power all the things that can help address the effects of climate change, energy experts said.
“It’s a perfect violent storm as far as meeting the demand that we’re going to have,” said Michael Johnston, executive director of codes and standards for the National Electrical Contractors Association. “It’s no small problem.”
half of new cars sold in the country by 2030. If all of those cars were plugged in during the day when energy use is high, utilities would have to spend a lot on upgrades. But if regulators allowed more utilities to offer lower electricity rates at night, people would charge cars when there is plenty of spare capacity.
Some businesses are already finding ways to rely less on the grid when demand is high. Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen that operates an electric vehicle charging network, has installed large batteries at some charging stations to avoid paying fees that utilities impose on businesses that draw too much power.
Robert Barrosa, senior director of sales and marketing at Electrify America, said that eventually the company could help utilities by taking power when there was too much of it and supplying it when there was not enough of it.
$1,050 to $2,585 a year, according to Rewiring America. Those products are more energy efficient and electricity tends to cost less than comparable amounts of gasoline, heating oil and natural gas. Electric cars and appliances are also cheaper to maintain.
“Done right, money can go further toward a more reliable network,” Mr. Calisch said, “especially in the face of increased stress from climate change.”
Consumer prices jumped more than expected last month, with rent, food and furniture costs surging as a limited supply of housing and a shortage of goods stemming from supply chain troubles combined to fuel rapid inflation.
The Consumer Price Index climbed 5.4 percent in September from a year earlier, faster than its 5.3 percent increase through August and above economists’ forecasts. Monthly price gains also exceeded predictions, with the index rising 0.4 percent from August to September.
The figures raise the stakes for both the Federal Reserve and the White House, which are facing a longer period of rapid inflation than they had expected and may soon come under pressure to act to ensure the price gains don’t become a permanent fixture.
On Wednesday, President Biden said his administration was doing what it could to fix supply-chain problems that have helped to produce shortages, long delivery times and rapid price increases for food, televisions, automobiles and other products.
Social Security Administration said on Wednesday that benefits would increase 5.9 percent in 2022, the biggest boost in 40 years. The increase, known as a cost-of-living adjustment, is tied to rising inflation.
jumped early in 2021 as prices for airfares, restaurant meals and apparel recovered after slumping as the economy locked down during the depths of the pandemic. That was expected. But more recently, prices have continued to climb as supply shortages mean businesses cannot keep up with fast-rising demand. Factory shutdowns, clogged shipping routes and labor shortages at ports and along trucking lines have combined to make goods difficult to produce and transport.
expect higher prices. If people believe that their lifestyles will cost more, they may demand higher compensation — and as employers lift pay, they may charge more for their goods to cover the costs, setting off an upward spiral.
though typically too little to fully offset the amount of inflation that has occurred this year. There are notable exceptions to that, including in leisure and hospitality jobs, where pay has accelerated faster than prices.
The fact that rents and other housing costs are now climbing only compounds the concern that price gains are becoming stickier.
“You have the sticky, important and cyclical piece of inflation surprising to the upside,” said Laura Rosner-Warburton, an economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives. “It is certainly a very significant development.”
Matt Permar, a 24-year-old mail carrier from Toledo, Ohio, rents a two-bedroom apartment in a suburban area with a friend from college. The pair had paid $540 a month each for two years, which Mr. Permar called “pretty standard.” But that has changed.
“With the housing market being the way it is, they raised it about $100,” he said of his monthly rent. As a result, Mr. Permar said, he will have less cash to save or invest.
The Fed aims for 2 percent inflation on average over time, which it defines using a different but related index, the Personal Consumption Expenditures measure. That gauge is released at more of a delay, and has also jumped this year.
Central bankers have said they are willing to look past surging prices because the gains are expected to prove transitory, and they expect long-run trends that had kept inflation low for years to come to dominate. But they have grown wary as rapid price gains last.
The Fed’s September meeting minutes showed that “most participants saw inflation risks as weighted to the upside because of concerns that supply disruptions and labor shortages might last longer and might have larger or more persistent effects on prices and wages than they currently assumed.”
Fed officials’ moves toward slowing their bond purchases could leave them more nimble if they find that they need to raise rates to control inflation next year. Officials have signaled that they want to stop buying bonds before raising rates, so that their two tools are not working at odds with each other.
Wall Street is watching every inflation data point closely, because higher rates from the Fed could squeeze growth and stock prices. And climbing costs can cut into corporate profits, denting earning prospects.
White House officials and many Wall Street data watchers tend to emphasize a “core” index of inflation, which strips out volatile food and fuel prices. Core inflation climbed 4 percent in the year through last month, but the monthly gain was less pronounced, at 0.2 percent.
Some economists welcomed that moderation as good news, along with the cooling in key prices, like airfares, that had popped earlier in the economic reopening. Others emphasized that once supply chain kinks were worked out, prices could drop on products like couches, bikes and refrigerators, providing a counterweight to rising housing expenses.
Omair Sharif, founder of Inflation Insights, said he expected consumer price inflation to moderate, coming in at 2.75 percent to 3 percent on a headline basis by next July, and for core inflation to cool down even more.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” he said.
Ana Swanson and Ben Casselman contributed reporting.
Tesla will move its headquarters from California to Austin, Texas, where it is building a new factory, its chief executive, Elon Musk, said at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Thursday.
The move makes good on a threat that Mr. Musk issued more than a year ago when he was frustrated by local coronavirus lockdown orders that forced Tesla to pause production at its factory in Fremont, Calif. Mr. Musk on Thursday said the company would keep that factory and expand production there.
“There’s a limit to how big you can scale in the Bay Area,” he said, adding that high housing prices there translate to long commutes for some employees. The Texas factory, which is near Austin and will manufacture Tesla’s Cybertruck, is minutes from downtown and from an airport, he said.
Mr. Musk was an outspoken early critic of pandemic restrictions, calling them “fascist” and predicting in March 2020 that there would be almost no new cases of virus infections by the end of April. In December, he said he had moved himself to Texas to be near the new factory. His other company, SpaceX, launches rockets from the state.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise said in December that it was moving to the Houston area, and Charles Schwab has moved to a suburb of Dallas and Fort Worth.
Mr. Musk’s decision will surely add fuel to a ceaseless debate between officials and executives in Texas and California about which state is a better place to do business. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, and his predecessors, have courted California companies to move to the state, arguing that it has lower taxes and lower housing and other costs. California has long played up the technological prowess of Silicon Valley and its universities as the reason many entrepreneurs start and build their companies there, a list that includes Tesla, Facebook, Google and Apple.
Texas has become more attractive to workers in recent years, too, with a generally lower cost of living. Austin, a thriving liberal city that is home to the University of Texas, in particular has boomed. Many technology companies, some based in California, have built huge campuses there. As a result, though, housing costs and traffic have increased significantly, leaving the city with the kinds of problems local governments in California have been dealing with for years.
Mr. Musk’s announcement is likely to take on political overtones, too.
Last month, Mr. Abbott invoked Mr. Musk in explaining why a new Texas law that greatly restricts abortion would not hurt the state economically. “Elon consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas,” the governor told CNBC.
he said on Twitter. “That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics.”
On Thursday evening, a Twitter post by Governor Abbott welcomed the news, saying “the Lone Star State is the land of opportunity and innovation.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, Erin Mellon, did not directly comment on Tesla’s move but said in a statement that the state was “home to the biggest ideas and companies on the planet” and that California would “stand up for workers, public health and a woman’s right to choose.”
Mr. Musk revealed the company’s move after shareholders voted on a series of proposals aimed at improving Tesla’s corporate governance. According to preliminary results, investors sided with Tesla on all but two measures that it opposed: one that would force its board members to run for re-election annually, down from every three years, and another that would require the company to publish more detail about efforts to diversify its work force.
In a report last year, Tesla revealed that its U.S. leadership was 59 percent white and 83 percent male. The company’s overall U.S. work force is 79 percent male and 34 percent white.
The vote comes days after a federal jury ordered Tesla to pay $137 million to Owen Diaz, a former contractor who said he faced repeated racist harassment while working at the Fremont factory, in 2015 and 2016. Tesla faces similar accusations from dozens of others in a class-action lawsuit.
The diversity report proposal, from Calvert Research and Management, a firm that focuses on responsible investment and is owned by Morgan Stanley, requires Tesla to publish annual reports about its diversity and inclusion efforts, something many other large companies already do.
Investors also re-elected to the board Kimbal Musk, Mr. Musk’s brother, and James Murdoch, the former 21st Century Fox executive, despite a recommendation to vote against them by ISS, a firm that advises investors on shareholder votes and corporate governance.
Proposals calling for additional reporting both on Tesla’s practice of using mandatory arbitration to resolve employee disputes and on the human rights impact of how it sources materials failed, according to early results. A final tally will be announced in the coming days, the company said.
The top wage for a Ford assembly line worker represented by the United Auto Workers is $32 an hour under a contract the company and union reached in 2019. Unionized workers at parts factories typically make less than those assembling cars.
Other big automakers are also pouring billions into battery and electric car plants. G.M., which said this year that it aimed to end production of internal-combustion vehicles by 2035, plans to build four battery plants in the United States over the next few years. Ford expects electric models to make up 40 percent of its production by 2030.
Even companies that have resisted electric cars have been changing their tune. Toyota Motor, in a sudden shift in strategy, said this month that it planned to spend billions of dollars over the next decade to build battery factories and hoped to sell two million electric cars a year by the end of the decade. Previously, Toyota planned to focus on making hybrid cars and trucks and expressed doubts that fully electric vehicles would take off.
Several other automakers, including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Hyundai and Stellantis, which was formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot, are also investing billions of dollars to produce electric vehicles.
“All these companies are building battery plants because you have to have your own production if you’re going to make E.V.s in high volume,” said Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst. “The fact they are spending billions of dollars means they’re saying: ‘There’s no turning back. We’re really going to do this.’”
But Mr. Ramsey said it was not clear how quickly consumers would embrace electric vehicles, which are still more expensive than conventional cars and trucks even after federal and state incentives. Charging stations will also have to expand significantly as more electric models hit the road.
“There’s grounds to have real concerns about where demand will actually be,” Mr. Ramsey said.
Ford’s new truck plant and battery factory in Tennessee will be in Stanton, about 50 miles northeast of Memphis. To be called Blue Oval City, the campus will cover six square miles, substantially larger than the Ford Rouge plant that Henry Ford built in the Detroit area a century ago. The Tennessee campus is expected to employ 6,000 people and will house suppliers and a battery recycling operation as well as the truck and battery factories. Ford and SK Innovation will invest $5.6 billion at the site.
For years, start-ups, automakers and other companies have been slowly building chargers, mainly in California and other coastal states where most electric cars are sold. These businesses use different strategies to make money, and auto experts say it is not clear which will succeed. The company with the most stations, ChargePoint, sells chargers to individuals, workplaces, stores, condo and apartment buildings, and businesses with fleets of electric vehicles. It collects subscription fees for software that manages the chargers. Tesla offers charging mainly to get people to buy its cars. And others make money by selling electricity to drivers.
The Transition to Electric Cars
Once the poor cousin to the hip business of making sleek electric cars, the charging industry has been swept up in its own gold rush. Venture capital firms poured nearly $1 billion into charging companies last year, more than the five previous years combined, according to PitchBook. So far in 2021, venture capital investments are up to more than $550 million.
On Wall Street, publicly traded special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, have struck deals to buy eight charging companies out of 26 deals involving electric vehicle and related businesses, according to Dealogic, a research firm. The deals typically include an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from big investors like BlackRock.
“It’s early, and folks are trying to wrap their heads around what does the potential look like,” said Gabe Daoud Jr., a managing director and analyst at Cowen, an investment bank.
These businesses could benefit from the infrastructure bill, but it is not clear how the Biden administration would distribute money for charging stations.
Another unanswered question is who will be the Exxon Mobil of the electric car age. It might well be automakers.
Tesla, which makes about two-thirds of the electric cars sold in the United States, has built thousands of chargers, which it made free for early customers. The company could open its network to vehicles made by other automakers by the end of the year, its chief executive, Elon Musk, said in July.
Some customers have balked at paying top dollar for new cars and have opted to make do with older vehicles. That has increased demand for parts and service, one of the most profitable businesses for car dealers. Many dealers have extended repair-shop hours. Mr. Ricart said he had some repair technicians putting in 10- or 12-hour days three or four days in a row before taking a few days off.
Of course, the shortage of cars will end, but it isn’t clear when.
As Covid-19 cases and deaths rose last spring, automakers shut down plants across North America from late March until mid-May. Since their plants were down and they expected sales to come back slowly, they ordered fewer semiconductors, the tiny brains that control engines, transmissions, touch screens, and many other components of modern cars and trucks.
At the same time, consumers confined to their homes began buying laptops, smartphones and game consoles, which increased demand for chips from companies that make those devices. When automakers restarted their plants, fewer chips were available.
Many automakers have had to idle plants for a week or two at a time in the first half of 2021. G.M., Ford Motor and others have also resorted to producing vehicles without certain components and holding them at plants until the required parts arrive. At one point, G.M. had about 20,000 nearly complete vehicles awaiting electronic components. It began shipping them in June.
Ford has been hit harder than many other automakers because of a fire at one of its suppliers’ factories in Japan. At the end of June, Ford had about 162,000 vehicles at dealer lots, fewer than half the number it had just three months ago and roughly a quarter of the stock its dealers typically hold.
This month, Ford is slowing production at several North American plants because of the chip shortage. The company said it planned to focus on completing vehicles.
Mr. Ricart recently took a trip on his Harley-Davidson to Louisville, Ky., and got a look at the trucks and S.U.V.s at a Ford plant that are waiting to be finished. He said he had seen “thousands of trucks in fields with temporary fencing around them.”
In the story of how the modern world was constructed, Toyota stands out as the mastermind of a monumental advance in industrial efficiency. The Japanese automaker pioneered so-called Just In Time manufacturing, in which parts are delivered to factories right as they are required, minimizing the need to stockpile them.
Over the last half-century, this approach has captivated global business in industries far beyond autos. From fashion to food processing to pharmaceuticals, companies have embraced Just In Time to stay nimble, allowing them to adapt to changing market demands, while cutting costs.
But the tumultuous events of the past year have challenged the merits of paring inventories, while reinvigorating concerns that some industries have gone too far, leaving them vulnerable to disruption. As the pandemic has hampered factory operations and sown chaos in global shipping, many economies around the world have been bedeviled by shortages of a vast range of goods — from electronics to lumber to clothing.
In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late.
“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”
shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.
But the breadth and persistence of the shortages reveal the extent to which the Just In Time idea has come to dominate commercial life. This helps explain why Nike and other apparel brands struggle to stock retail outlets with their wares. It’s one of the reasons construction companies are having trouble purchasing paints and sealants. It was a principal contributor to the tragic shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, which left frontline medical workers without adequate gear.
a shortage of lumber that has stymied home building in the United States.
Suez Canal this year, closing the primary channel linking Europe and Asia.
“People adopted that kind of lean mentality, and then they applied it to supply chains with the assumption that they would have low-cost and reliable shipping,” said Mr. Shih, the Harvard Business School trade expert. “Then, you have some shocks to the system.”
An Idea That Went ‘Way Too Far’
presentation for the pharmaceutical industry. It promised savings of up to 50 percent on warehousing if clients embraced its “lean and mean” approach to supply chains.
Such claims have panned out. Still, one of the authors of that presentation, Knut Alicke, a McKinsey partner based in Germany, now says the corporate world exceeded prudence.
“We went way too far,” Mr. Alicke said in an interview. “The way that inventory is evaluated will change after the crisis.”
Many companies acted as if manufacturing and shipping were devoid of mishaps, Mr. Alicke added, while failing to account for trouble in their business plans.
“There’s no kind of disruption risk term in there,” he said.
Experts say that omission represents a logical response from management to the incentives at play. Investors reward companies that produce growth in their return on assets. Limiting goods in warehouses improves that ratio.
study. These savings helped finance another shareholder-enriching trend — the growth of share buybacks.
In the decade leading up to the pandemic, American companies spent more than $6 trillion to buy their own shares, roughly tripling their purchases, according to a study by the Bank for International Settlements. Companies in Japan, Britain, France, Canada and China increased their buybacks fourfold, though their purchases were a fraction of their American counterparts.
Repurchasing stock reduces the number of shares in circulation, lifting their value. But the benefits for investors and executives, whose pay packages include hefty allocations of stock, have come at the expense of whatever the company might have otherwise done with its money — investing to expand capacity, or stockpiling parts.
These costs became conspicuous during the first wave of the pandemic, when major economies including the United States discovered that they lacked capacity to quickly make ventilators.
“When you need a ventilator, you need a ventilator,” Mr. Sodhi said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, my stock price is high.’”
When the pandemic began, car manufacturers slashed orders for chips on the expectation that demand for cars would plunge. By the time they realized that demand was reviving, it was too late: Ramping up production of computer chips requires months.
stock analysts on April 28. The company said the shortages would probably derail half of its production through June.
The automaker least affected by the shortage is Toyota. From the inception of Just In Time, Toyota relied on suppliers clustered close to its base in Japan, making the company less susceptible to events far away.
‘It All Cascades’
In Conshohocken, Pa., Mr. Romano is literally waiting for his ship to come in.
He is vice president of sales at Van Horn, Metz & Company, which buys chemicals from suppliers around the world and sells them to factories that make paint, ink and other industrial products.
In normal times, the company is behind in filling perhaps 1 percent of its customers’ orders. On a recent morning, it could not complete a tenth of its orders because it was waiting for supplies to arrive.
The company could not secure enough of a specialized resin that it sells to manufacturers that make construction materials. The American supplier of the resin was itself lacking one element that it purchases from a petrochemical plant in China.
One of Mr. Romano’s regular customers, a paint manufacturer, was holding off on ordering chemicals because it could not locate enough of the metal cans it uses to ship its finished product.
“It all cascades,” Mr. Romano said. “It’s just a mess.”
No pandemic was required to reveal the risks of overreliance on Just In Time combined with global supply chains. Experts have warned about the consequences for decades.
In 1999, an earthquake shook Taiwan, shutting down computer chip manufacturing. The earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan in 2011 shut down factories and impeded shipping, generating shortages of auto parts and computer chips. Floods in Thailand the same year decimated production of computer hard drives.
Each disaster prompted talk that companies needed to bolster their inventories and diversify their suppliers.
Each time, multinational companies carried on.
The same consultants who promoted the virtues of lean inventories now evangelize about supply chain resilience — the buzzword of the moment.
Simply expanding warehouses may not provide the fix, said Richard Lebovitz, president of LeanDNA, a supply chain consultant based in Austin, Texas. Product lines are increasingly customized.
“The ability to predict what inventory you should keep is harder and harder,” he said.
Ultimately, business is likely to further its embrace of lean for the simple reason that it has yielded profits.
“The real question is, ‘Are we going to stop chasing low cost as the sole criteria for business judgment?’” said Mr. Shih, from Harvard Business School. “I’m skeptical of that. Consumers won’t pay for resilience when they are not in crisis.”
Ford Motor said on Wednesday that it would increase spending on electric vehicles by about a third from its previous plans and expects E.V.s to make up 40 percent of its production by 2030, a big increase in its commitment to the electrification of cars and trucks.
The company intends to spend $30 billion in the five years ending in 2025, up from the previous target of $22 billion. It also said it had accepted 70,000 reservations for the F-150 Lightning, the electric version of its top-selling pickup truck.
“This is our biggest opportunity for growth and value creation since Henry Ford started to scale the Model T,” Ford’s chief executive, Jim Farley, said in a statement.
Ford has gone from being a relative latecomer to battery-powered vehicles to making them a central focus. The company recently started delivering an electric sport utility vehicle, the Mustang Mach-E, that has sold well and been praised by car reviewers. The model also appears to have taken market share from Tesla, which until recently dominated the electric car market. Last week, Ford introduced the F-150 Lightning, and President Biden drove the truck at a company track in Michigan and praised its rapid acceleration.
The increase in spending reflects new investments in better technology and production. Last week, Ford said it would form a joint venture with a South Korean company, SK Innovation, to manufacture battery cells at two plants in the United States for future Ford and Lincoln vehicles.
Ford’s stock was up nearly 5 percent Wednesday morning after the company’s electric vehicle announcements.
Lordstown Motors, a start-up aiming to make electric pickup trucks, said on Monday that it would “at best” make just 50 percent of the vehicles it had previously hoped to this year.
Lordstown gained attention because it purchased an auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, that General Motors had closed. It was also once hailed by former President Donald Trump for saving manufacturing jobs.
The company, which said Monday it was on track to start production in September, became a publicly traded company last year by merging with a special purpose acquisition vehicle, a company set up with cash from investors and a stock listing. Several other electric vehicle and related businesses have gone public through similar mergers in recent months taking advantage of investors desire to find the next Tesla.
Lordstown, which is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, said it lost $125 million in the first quarter of 2021, but ended the period with $587 million in cash.
After the news of its production outlook was released, Lordstown’s stock fell about 8 percent in after-hours trading, to just under $9. The stock briefly traded at about $30 last year.
It was seven years ago when Waymo discovered that spring blossoms made its self-driving cars get twitchy on the brakes. So did soap bubbles. And road flares.
New tests, in years of tests, revealed more and more distractions for the driverless cars. Their road skills improved, but matching the competence of human drivers was elusive. The cluttered roads of America, it turned out, were a daunting place for a robot.
The wizards of Silicon Valley said people would be commuting to work in self-driving cars by now. Instead, there have been court fights, injuries and deaths, and tens of billions of dollars spent on a frustratingly fickle technology that some researchers say is still years from becoming the industry’s next big thing.
Now the pursuit of autonomous cars is undergoing a reset. Companies like Uber and Lyft, worried about blowing through their cash in pursuit of autonomous technology, have tapped out. Only the most deep pocketed outfits like Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, auto industry giants, and a handful of start-ups are managing to stay in the game.
said that fully functional self-driving cars were just two years away. More than five years later, Tesla cars offered simpler autonomy designed solely for highway driving. Even that has been tinged with controversy after several fatal crashes (which the company blamed on misuse of the technology).
Perhaps no company experienced the turbulence of driverless car development more fitfully than Uber. After poaching 40 robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University and acquiring a self-driving truck start-up for $680 million in stock, the ride-hailing company settled a lawsuit from Waymo, which was followed by a guilty plea from a former executive accused of stealing intellectual property. A pedestrian in Arizona was also killed in a crash with one of its driverless cars. In the end, Uber essentially paid Aurora to acquire its self-driving unit.
But for the most deep-pocketed companies, the science, they hope, continues to advance one improved ride at a time. In October, Waymo reached a notable milestone: It launched the world’s first “fully autonomous” taxi service. In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., anyone can now ride in a minivan with no driver behind the wheel. But that does not mean the company will immediately deploy its technology in other parts of the country.
Dmitri Dolgov, who recently took over as Waymo’s co-chief executive after the departure of John Krafcik, an automobile industry veteran, said the company considers its Arizona service a test case. Based on what it has learned in Arizona, he said, Waymo is building a new version of its self-driving technology that it will eventually deploy in other geographies and other kinds of vehicles, including long-haul trucks.
The suburbs of Phoenix are particularly well suited to driverless cars. Streets are wide, pedestrians are few and there is almost no rain or snow. Waymo supports its autonomous vehicles with remote technicians and roadside assistance crews who can help get cars out of a tight spot, either via the internet or in person.
“Autonomous vehicles can be deployed today, in certain situations,” said Elliot Katz, a former lawyer who counseled many of the big autonomous vehicle companies before launching a start-up, Phantom Auto, that provides software for remotely assisting and operating self-driving vehicles when they get stuck in difficult positions. “But you still need a human in the loop.”
Self-driving tech is not yet nimble enough to reliably handle the variety of situations human drivers encounter each day. They can usually handle suburban Phoenix, but they can’t duplicate the human chutzpah needed for merging into the Lincoln Tunnel in New York or dashing for an offramp on Highway 101 in Los Angeles.
“You have to peel back every layer before you can see the next layer” of challenges for the technology, said Nathaniel Fairfield, a Waymo software engineer who has worked on the project since 2009, in describing some of the distractions faced by the cars. “Your car has to be pretty good at driving before you can really get it into the situations where it handles the next most challenging thing.”
Like Waymo, Aurora is now developing autonomous trucks as well as passenger vehicles. No company has deployed trucks without safety drivers behind the wheel, but Mr. Urmson and others argue that autonomous trucks will make it to market faster than anything designed to transport regular consumers.
Long-haul trucking does not involve passengers who might not be forgiving of twitchy brakes. The routes are also simpler. Once you master one stretch of highway, Mr. Urmson said, it is easier to master another. But even driving down a long, relatively straight highway is extraordinarily difficult. Delivering dinner orders across a small neighborhood is an even greater challenge.
“This is one of the biggest technical challenges of our generation,” said Dave Ferguson, another early engineer on the Google team who is now president of Nuro, a company focused on delivering groceries, pizzas and other goods.
Mr. Ferguson said that many thought self-driving technology would improve like an internet service or a smartphone app. But robotics is a lot more challenging. It was wrong to claim anything else.
“If you look at almost every industry that is trying to solve really really difficult technical challenges, the folks that tend to be involved are a little bit crazy and little bit optimistic,” he said. “You need to have that optimism to get up everyday and bang your head against the wall to try to solve a problem that has never been solved, and it’s not guaranteed that it ever will be solved.”
Uber and Lyft aren’t entirely giving up on driverless cars. Even though it may not help the bottom line for a long time, they still want to deploy autonomous vehicles by partnering with the companies that are still working on the technology. Lyft now says autonomous rides could arrive by 2023.
“These cars will be able to operate on a limited set of streets under a limited set of weather conditions at certain speeds,” said Jody Kelman, the executive of Lyft. “We will very safely be able to deploy these cars, but they won’t be able to go that many places.”