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.
Women at tech start-ups wrote to her thanking her for saying what they had been feeling, Ms. Esponnette said.
Lola Priego, 30, the founder of Base, which offers at-home blood and saliva tests that are processed at traditional labs, hears a Theranos comparison at least once a week, she said. The references come directly or indirectly from potential partners, advisers, investors, customers and reporters, she said.
She said she understood the need for skepticism, since new health care companies should be looked at critically to prevent malpractice. Often the comparisons stopped after people learned that Base works with Quest Diagnostics, a multinational company, for analysis of its tests.
“But the additional bias and skepticism is challenging to overcome,” Ms. Priego said.
The biggest blow came from a scientific adviser whom Ms. Priego said she had tried to recruit in 2019. The adviser took the meeting only to tell her that bringing technology into health care was doing a disservice to the industry, just like Theranos. It caused Ms. Priego to question whether she could hire the caliber of advisers she had hoped for.
“It was quite demoralizing,” she said. She has since recruited six advisers.
In July, Verge Genomics struck a three-year partnership with the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly to work on drugs for the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., Ms. Zhang said. The company also published a paper about its methods in a scientific journal last year and recruited a chief science officer this year.
It was a relief to have something to show to those who were doubtful, Ms. Zhang said.
“The most fragile part of the company is the earliest stage, when you have to buy into the people, the vision and the idea,” she said. Reflecting on Ms. Holmes and Theranos, she added, “It’s where these types of associations can be really harmful and curtail potential.”
Internet infrastructure operators like Didi must now prove their political and legal legitimacy to the government, Ma Changbo, an online media start-up founder, wrote on his WeChat social media account.
“This is the second half of the U.S.-China decoupling,” he wrote. “In the capital market, the model of playing both sides of the fence is coming to an end.”
Didi, Ms. Liu and Mr. Liu didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
China’s internet companies have benefited from the best of two worlds since the 1990s. Many received foreign venture funding — Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, was funded by Yahoo and SoftBank, while Tencent, another internet titan, was backed by South Africa’s Naspers. They also copied their business models from Silicon Valley companies.
The Chinese companies gained further advantages when Beijing blocked almost all big American internet companies from its domestic market, giving its home players plenty of room to grow. Many Chinese internet firms later went public in New York, where investors have a bigger appetite for innovative and risky start-ups than in Shanghai or Hong Kong. So far this year, more than 35 Chinese companies have gone public in the United States.
Let Us Help You Protect Your Digital Life
Now the Didi crackdown is changing the calculations for many in China’s tech industry. One entrepreneur who has set her sights on a listing in New York for her enterprise software start-up said it would be harder to go public in Hong Kong with a high valuation because what her company did — software as a service — was a relatively new idea in China.
A venture capitalist in Beijing added that because of China’s data security requirements, it was now unlikely that start-ups in artificial intelligence and software as a service would consider going public in New York. Few people were willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation by Beijing.
At the same time, the United States has become more hostile to Chinese tech companies and investors. As Washington has ramped up its scrutiny of deals that involve sensitive technologies, it has become almost impossible for Chinese venture firms to invest in Silicon Valley start-ups, several investors said.
Also in late February, Blueacorn and Womply got an unexpected tailwind from a major rule change by the Small Business Administration, which oversaw the loan program. Concerned that women and minority-led businesses were being disproportionately left out, the Biden administration overhauled the loan formula to award sole proprietors — a group that includes contractors and gig workers — loans based on their reported revenue rather than profit. Overnight, millions more qualified for help. Drawn in by the marketing campaigns, they stampeded toward the two companies.
By early March, “we were overrun with demand,” said Blueacorn’s Mr. Calhoun, a private equity veteran who joined the company that month to help manage its growth. “We had a 24-hour period where we went from 15,000 new customer service tickets to 27,000,” he recalled. “Those are Amazon-like levels.”
Blueacorn rented call centers and trained hundreds of temporary workers to troubleshoot. Womply redeployed nearly all of its 200 employees to work on loan issues. Both companies still struggled to keep up. On Reddit groups and social media sites, thousands of borrowers complained about delays, poor communication and problems resolving errors.
Louis Glatthorn, an Uber driver in Boone, N.C., who goes by Bob, applied on Womply’s website on April 7 and signed the paperwork two weeks later for a $7,818 loan. But the money — which is listed in government records as approved — has not been paid by Benworth Capital, one of Womply’s partners. Mr. Glatthorn’s attempts to reach Womply for help have been unsuccessful.
“You can never talk to a person or actually make contact,” he said. A Womply representative declined to comment on Mr. Glatthorn’s experience.
Others had a smoother run. Dan Bourque, an Uber driver in San Francisco, saw Womply’s ads and applied for a loan in mid-April. Seventeen days later, he had a $10,477 deposit — funded by Fountainhead SBF, another of Womply’s partner lenders — in his bank account. For that loan, the process “was flawless,” he said.
The Money Pours In
The millions of tiny loans the two tech companies enabled, coupled with Congress’s decision to make small loans more lucrative, led to gigantic payouts for small lenders. Last year, Prestamos made $1.3 million for its lending. This year, it will collect nearly $1.2 billion, according to a New York Times calculation of lenders’ fees based on government data.
A few years ago, while on a work trip in Los Angeles, I hailed an Uber for a crosstown ride during rush hour. I knew it would be a long trip, and I steeled myself to fork over $60 or $70.
Instead, the app spit out a price that made my jaw drop: $16.
Experiences like these were common during the golden era of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy, which is what I like to call the period from roughly 2012 through early 2020, when many of the daily activities of big-city 20- and 30-somethings were being quietly underwritten by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
For years, these subsidies allowed us to live Balenciaga lifestyles on Banana Republic budgets. Collectively, we took millions of cheap Uber and Lyft rides, shuttling ourselves around like bourgeois royalty while splitting the bill with those companies’ investors. We plunged MoviePass into bankruptcy by taking advantage of its $9.95-a-month, all-you-can-watch movie ticket deal, and took so many subsidized spin classes that ClassPass was forced to cancel its $99-a-month unlimited plan. We filled graveyards with the carcasses of food delivery start-ups — Maple, Sprig, SpoonRocket, Munchery — just by accepting their offers of underpriced gourmet meals.
tweeted, along with a screenshot of a receipt that showed he had spent nearly $250 on a ride to the airport.
“Airbnb got too much dip on they chip,” another Twitter user complained. “No one is gonna continue to pay $500 to stay in an apartment for two days when they can pay $300 for a hotel stay that has a pool, room service, free breakfast & cleaning everyday. Like get real lol.”
Some of these companies have been tightening their belts for years. But the pandemic seems to have emptied what was left of the bargain bin. The average Uber and Lyft ride costs 40 percent more than it did a year ago, according to Rakuten Intelligence, and food delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub have been steadily increasing their fees over the past year. The average daily rate of an Airbnb rental increased 35 percent in the first quarter of 2021, compared with the same quarter the year before, according to the company’s financial filings.
set up a $250 million “driver stimulus” fund — or doing away with them altogether.
I’ll confess that I gleefully took part in this subsidized economy for years. (My colleague Kara Swisher memorably called it “assisted living for millennials.”) I got my laundry delivered by Washio, my house cleaned by Homejoy and my car valet-parked by Luxe — all start-ups that promised cheap, revolutionary on-demand services but shut down after failing to turn a profit. I even bought a used car through a venture-backed start-up called Beepi, which offered white-glove service and mysteriously low prices, and which delivered the car to me wrapped in a giant bow, like you see in TV commercials. (Unsurprisingly, Beepi shut down in 2017, after burning through $150 million in venture capital.)
These subsidies don’t always end badly for investors. Some venture-backed companies, like Uber and DoorDash, have been able to grit it out until their I.P.O.s, making good on their promise that investors would eventually see a return on their money. Other companies have been acquired or been able to successfully raise their prices without scaring customers away.
Uber, which raised nearly $20 billion in venture capital before going public, may be the best-known example of an investor-subsidized service. During a stretch of 2015, the company was burning $1 million a week in driver and rider incentives in San Francisco alone, according to reporting by BuzzFeed News.
But the clearest example of a jarring pivot to profitability might be the electric scooter business.
Remember scooters? Before the pandemic, you couldn’t walk down the sidewalk of a major American city without seeing one. Part of the reason they took off so quickly is that they were ludicrously cheap. Bird, the largest scooter start-up, charged $1 to start a ride, and then 15 cents a minute. For short trips, renting a scooter was often cheaper than taking the bus.
But those fees didn’t represent anything close to the true cost of a Bird ride. The scooters broke frequently and needed constant replacing, and the company was shoveling money out the door just to keep its service going. As of 2019, Bird was losing $9.66 for every $10 it made on rides, according to a recent investor presentation. That is a shocking number, and the kind of sustained losses that are possible only for a Silicon Valley start-up with extremely patient investors. (Imagine a deli that charged $10 for a sandwich whose ingredients cost $19.66, and then imagine how long that deli would stay in business.)
Pandemic-related losses, coupled with the pressure to turn a profit, forced Bird to trim its sails. It raised its prices — a Bird now costs as much as $1 plus 42 cents a minute in some cities — built more durable scooters and revamped its fleet management system. During the second half of 2020, the company made $1.43 in profit for every $10 ride.
“DoorDash and Pizza Arbitrage,” about the time he realized that DoorDash was selling pizzas from his friend’s restaurant for $16 while paying the restaurant $24 per pizza, and proceeded to order dozens of pizzas from the restaurant while pocketing the $8 difference, stands as a classic of the genre.)
But it’s hard to fault these investors for wanting their companies to turn a profit. And, at a broader level, it’s probably good to find more efficient uses for capital than giving discounts to affluent urbanites.
Back in 2018, I wrote that the entire economy was starting to resemble MoviePass, the subscription service whose irresistible, deeply unprofitable offer of daily movie tickets for a flat $9.95 subscription fee paved the way for its decline. Companies like MoviePass, I thought, were trying to defy the laws of gravity with business models that assumed that if they achieved enormous scale, they’d be able to flip a switch and start making money at some point down the line. (This philosophy, which was more or less invented by Amazon, is now known in tech circles as “blitzscaling.”)
There is still plenty of irrationality in the market, and some start-ups still burn huge piles of money in search of growth. But as these companies mature, they seem to be discovering the benefits of financial discipline. Uber lost only $108 million in the first quarter of 2021 — a change partly attributable to the sale of its autonomous driving unit, and a vast improvement, believe it or not, over the same quarter last year, when it lost $3 billion. Both Uber and Lyft have pledged to become profitable on an adjusted basis this year. Lime, Bird’s main electric scooter competitor, turned its first quarterly profit last year, and Bird — which recently filed to go public through a SPAC at a $2.3 billion valuation — has projected better economics in the years ahead.
Profits are good for investors, of course. And while it’s painful to pay subsidy-free prices for our extravagances, there’s also a certain justice to it. Hiring a private driver to shuttle you across Los Angeles during rush hour should cost more than $16, if everyone in that transaction is being fairly compensated. Getting someone to clean your house, do your laundry or deliver your dinner should be a luxury, if there’s no exploitation involved. The fact that some high-end services are no longer easily affordable by the merely semi-affluent may seem like a worrying development, but maybe it’s a sign of progress.
Isabella Casillas Guzman, President Biden’s choice to run the Small Business Administration, inherited a portfolio of nearly $1 trillion in emergency aid and an agency plagued by controversy when she took over in March. She has been sprinting from crisis to crisis ever since.
Some new programs have been mired in delays and glitches, while the S.B.A.’s best-known pandemic relief effort, the Paycheck Protection Program, nearly ran out of money for its loans this month, confusing lenders and stranding millions of borrowers. Angry business owners have deluged the agency with criticism and complaints.
Now, it’s Ms. Guzman’s job to turn the ship around. “It’s the largest S.B.A. portfolio we’ve ever had, and clearly there’s going to need to be some changes in how we do business,” she said in a recent interview.
When the coronavirus crisis struck and the economy went into a free fall last year, Congress and the Trump administration pushed the Small Business Administration to the forefront, putting it in charge of huge sums of relief money and complicated new programs.
confusing, often-revised loan terms and several technical meltdowns — the program enjoyed some success. Millions of business owners credit it with helping them survive the pandemic and keep more workers employed.
Economists are skeptical about whether the program’s results justify its huge cost, but Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden both embraced the effort as a centerpiece of their economic rescue plans. As the pandemic stretched on and the economy plunged into a recession, the Paycheck Protection Program morphed into the largest business bailout in American history. More than eight million companies got forgivable loans, totaling $788 billion — nearly as much money as the government spent on its three rounds of direct payments to taxpayers.
Fraud is a major concern. Thousands of people took advantage of the rushed program’s minimal documentation requirements and sought illicit loans, according to prosecutors, to fund gambling sprees, Lamborghinis, luxury watches, an alpaca farm and a Medicare fraud scheme. The Justice Department has charged hundreds of people with stealing more than $440 million, and scores of federal investigations are active. (During her confirmation hearing, Ms. Guzman promised that she would “prioritize the reduction of fraud, waste and abuse.”)
There were other problems. Female and minority business owners were disproportionately left out of the relief effort. A last-minute attempt by Mr. Biden to make the program more generous for solo business owners came too late to help many of them. This month, a new emergency popped up: The program ran short of money and abruptly closed to most new applicants.
“There was no warning,” Toby Scammell, the chief executive of Womply, a company that helps borrowers get loans, said of the latest debacle. His company alone has more than 1.6 million applicants caught in limbo.
low-interest disaster loans of up to $500,000 and new grant funds, created by Congress, for two of the hardest-hit industries: the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant for live-event businesses and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. (The hotel industry is pushing for its own version.)
Today in Business
Each required the agency to create policies and technology systems from scratch. The venue program has been especially rocky. On its scheduled start day, in early April, the application system completely failed, leaving desperate applicants hitting refresh and relying on social media posts for information and updates.
“I turned to my associate director and said, ‘I figured something like this would happen,’” said Chris Zacher, the executive director of Levitt Pavilion, a nonprofit performing arts center in Denver. The Small Business Administration revived the system three weeks later and has received 12,200 applications, but it does not anticipate awarding grants until late May.
have turned into primal screams of pain. (“I SERIOUSLY CANNOT TAKE THIS WITH SBA ANY LONGER” is one of the milder replies.) She said she understood the urgency.
“It’s definitely unprecedented — across the board, across the nation — and we are seeing multiple disasters at the same time,” she said. “The agency is highly focused on just still responding to disaster and implementing this relief as quickly as possible.”
This is Ms. Guzman’s second tour at the Small Business Administration. When President Barack Obama picked Maria Contreras-Sweet in 2014 to take over the agency, Ms. Guzman went along as a senior adviser and deputy chief of staff. The women had met in the mid-1990s. Ms. Guzman, a California native with an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, was hired at 7Up/RC Bottling by Ms. Contreras-Sweet, an executive there.
“I was always impressed with her ability to handle jobs with steep learning curves — she has a quick grasp of complex concepts,” Ms. Contreras-Sweet said.
Ms. Guzman spent her first stint at the agency focused on traditional projects like its flagship lending program, which normally facilitates around $28 billion a year in loans. The time, the job is radically different.
community navigators” program, which will fund local organizations, including nonprofits and government groups, to work closely with businesses owned by people with disabilities or in underserved rural, minority and immigrant communities. It’s an expansion of a grass-roots effort by several nonprofits to get vulnerable businesses access to Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Ms. Guzman said she was bullish about that effort and other agency priorities, like expanding Black and other minority entrepreneurs’ access to capital — but first, like the clients it serves, the Small Business Administration has to weather the pandemic.
And to do that, it has to stop shooting itself in the foot.
The much-awaited second attempt at opening the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant fund was preceded by one final debacle: The agency announced — and then, less than a day before the date, abandoned — a plan to open the first-come-first-served fund on a Saturday. For those seeking aid that has not yet arrived, the incident felt like yet another kick in the teeth.
Ms. Guzman said she was aware of the need for her agency to overcome its limitations and rebuild its checkered reputation.
“This is a pivotal moment in time where we can leverage the interest in small business to really deliver a remarkable agency to them,” she said. “I value being the voice for the 30 million small and innovative start-ups around the country. What I always say to my staff is that I want these businesses to feel like the giants that they are in our economy.”
More than 12.6 million United States households adopted animals from March to December of last year, according to the American Pet Products Association, helping to propel an increase in visits and revenue to veterinary offices.
That heightened demand has drawn investors and others to the market for veterinary services. Landlords who might have spurned tenants associated with unpleasant odors and noise are more amenable to leasing to the clinics after a year when the vets paid their rent while other businesses fell behind. And architecture firms that specialize in the design of vet space are busier than ever.
Tech-savvy start-ups are promising a reinvention of the experience, with phone apps, round-the-clock telemedicine and boutique storefronts with refreshments (for pet owners).
The pet care business is riding a growth spurt: Morgan Stanley projected that it would be a $275 billion industry in 2030, up from $100 billion in 2019, with vet care the fastest-growing segment over the next decade.
“Ten years ago, there was a baby boom,” Arash Danialifar, the chief executive of GD Realty Group, a California company that has leased space to a veterinary start-up, said about the proliferation of shops selling children’s fashion. “Now, it’s all about pets.”
When Allegra Brochin and her boyfriend adopted Sprinkles, a feisty white Maltese, last year, they set about finding pet care.
“I immediately started looking,” said Ms. Brochin, 23, who works as a communications coordinator for Michael Kors in New York.
She saw ads for Bond Vet pop up on her Instagram feed, and when she took in Sprinkles for her shots, she was won over by the look and feel of the clinic, “especially when it’s for a pet you care about and feel responsible for,” she said.
Ms. Brochin is not alone in her devotion to her pandemic pet. More than 12.6 million households adopted animals from March to December of last year, according to the American Pet Products Association, helping to propel an increase in visits and revenue to veterinary offices, as new owners took pets in for their first checkup.
pet care business is riding a growth spurt: Morgan Stanley projected that it would be a $275 billion industry in 2030, up from $100 billion in 2019, with vet care the fastest-growing segment over the next decade.
“Ten years ago, there was a baby boom,” Arash Danialifar, chief executive of GD Realty Group, a California company that has leased space to a veterinary start-up, said about the proliferation of shops selling children’s fashion. “Now it’s all about pets.”
Small Door Veterinary recently announced it had raised $20 million and planned to go from a single location to 25 by 2025. The firm operates on a membership model, with 24/7 telemedicine and waiting areas with arched, white oak-paneled alcoves that give owners and their pets an intimate place to chill before appointments. Designed by Alda Ly Architecture, the clinics are rented storefronts of 2,000 to 3,000 square feet and cost about $1 million to kit out, said Josh Guttman, Small Door’s co-founder and chief executive.
Bond Vet, another New York start-up, models itself on CityMD clinics; it recently raised $17 million and now has six offices, including its first suburban location, in Garden City on Long Island.
Modern Animal, has an office in a high-end shopping district in West Hollywood, with three more to come in the city by year’s end and a dozen clinics in California by 2022, said the company’s founder and chief executive, Steven Eidelman.
new pet owners during the pandemic. Seventy-six percent of millennials own pets, according to a recent survey, and they are spending generously on their charges.
Terravet Real Estate Solutions, founded in 2016, now owns more than 100 buildings in 30 states, many of them housing practices owned by consolidators. For instance, Terravet owns the building housing CountryChase Veterinary Hospital in Tampa, Fla., and the American Veterinary Group, which operates practices across the South, owns the business.
Hound Properties, founded two years ago, has been buying buildings with an investor-backed fund. And Vetley Capital, started this year, has a portfolio of 20 buildings in nine states, most of them on the small side, ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 square feet and costing around $1 million, said Zach Goldman, the company’s founder and president.
The price of real estate has risen, but the returns are generally modest. “It’s the ultimate slow and steady income,” said Tripp Stewart, co-founder and chief executive of Hound Properties, who is also a practicing vet.
Despite the interest, there are obstacles to opening pet hospitals. Zoning sometimes limits their locations. In Pasadena, Calif., GD Realty had to request a zoning change for Modern Animal.
Because such businesses revolve around animal doctors, who are in demand as veterinary companies expand, there are shortages of vets in some parts of the country, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The improvements in vet facilities are thus aimed not only at pets and their owners, but also at the doctors themselves, who can choose where they want to work.
“It used to be that when you went to a vet, it was a family vet who worked out of a kitchen in an old house,” said Dr. Stewart. “Today, you’re not going to attract new young vets to an old house.”
Before the widespread availability of this kind of computing, organizations built expensive prototypes to test their designs. “We actually went and built a full-scale prototype, and ran it to the end of life before we deployed it in the field,” said Brandon Haugh, a core-design engineer, referring to a nuclear reactor he worked on with the U.S. Navy. “That was a 20-year, multibillion dollar test.”
Today, Mr. Haugh is the director of modeling and simulation at the California-based nuclear engineering start-up Kairos Power, where he hones the design for affordable and safe reactors that Kairos hopes will help speed the world’s transition to clean energy.
Nuclear energy has long been regarded as one of the best options for zero-carbon electricity production — except for its prohibitive cost. But Kairos Power’s advanced reactors are being designed to produce power at costs that are competitive with natural gas.
“The democratization of high-performance computing has now come all the way down to the start-up, enabling companies like ours to rapidly iterate and move from concept to field deployment in record time,” Mr. Haugh said.
But high-performance computing in the cloud also has created new challenges.
In the last few years, there has been a proliferation of custom computer chips purposely built for specific types of mathematical problems. Similarly, there are now different types of memory and networking configurations within high-performance computing. And the different cloud providers have different specializations; one may be better at computational fluid dynamics while another is better at structural analysis.
The challenge, then, is picking the right configuration and getting the capacity when you need it — because demand has risen sharply. And while scientists and engineers are experts in their domains, they aren’t necessarily in server configurations, processors and the like.
This has given rise to a new kind of specialization — experts in high-performance cloud computing — and new cross-cloud platforms that act as one-stop shops where companies can pick the right combination of software and hardware. Rescale, which works closely with all the major cloud providers, is the dominant company in this field. It matches computing problems for businesses, like Firefly and Kairos, with the right cloud provider to deliver computing that scientists and engineers can use to solve problems faster or at lowest possible cost.
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.”