The Failure Of This Self-Driving Truck Company Tells You All You Need To Know About Self-Driving Vehicles

Illustration for article titled The Failure Of This Self-Driving Truck Company Tells You All You Need To Know About Self-Driving Vehicles
Screenshot: Starsky Robotics

Starsky Robotics is a self-driving truck company that was the first company to run an unmanned semi on a public highway. It’s now shutting down though, and its co-founder has some unusually sensible and honest things to say about the industry, unusual only because the industry is stuffed with charlatans.

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Stefan Seltz-Axmacher co-founded Starsky around four years ago, eventually equipping a fleet of three tractor-trailers with self-driving equipment, making them capable of navigating private truck yards and, once, nine miles of a Florida highway.

Those might seem like modest accomplishments, but they were almost intentionally so, Seltz-Axmacher told Automotive News in an exit interview of sorts. That’s because the company placed a big emphasis on safety, which, shockingly, wasn’t popular with investors.

While competitors expended effort adding machine learning-based features such as enabling trucks to change lanes on their own, Seltz-Axmacher said he threw resources into safety engineering. The company was the first autonomous trucking company to submit a Voluntary Safety Self Assessment to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But a problem emerged: that safety focus didn’t excite investors. Venture capitalists, Seltz-Axmacher said, had trouble grasping why the company expended massive resources preparing, validating and vetting his system, then preparing a backup system, before the initial unmanned test run. That work essentially didn’t matter when he went in search of more funding.

“There’s not a lot of Silicon Valley companies that have shipped safety-critical products,” he said. “They measured progress on interesting features.”

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But it isn’t just safety tech that venture capital isn’t interested in, according to Seltz-Axmacher, it’s possibly the entire idea of investing in autonomous vehicles period. That’s because VC firms have been dumping money into self-driving startups for years now and starting to realize that maybe this whole self-driving thing isn’t around the corner.

“The VCs started to realize early last year that something was amiss in the autonomous industry,” he tells Automotive News. “They’re putting a lot of money in, and they’re not getting anything out.”

Along the way, he also became a disbeliever, mainly because of the problem with edge cases, or solving for obstacles and other things on the road a self-driving car will encounter that it doesn’t usually do. That could be a deer, for example, or challenging weather conditions, but each case is different, and it turns out that it gets exponentially harder and more expensive for machines to learn them the rarer they get.

Which Seltz-Axmacher ultimately concludes is a big problem for the industry, since to get a machine to be at least as good as a human will take billions and billions of more dollars of investment and likely years of testing. And now that the VC firms are getting wise to this fact, it makes it even less likely that the companies like Starsky will even be given the chance.

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In Starsky’s case, that meant an investment round in November that fell apart, but he doesn’t think Starsky will be the last self-driving startup to encounter similar issues.

From a lengthy blog post Seltz-Axmacher published today:

There are too many problems with the AV industry to detail here: the professorial pace at which most teams work, the lack of tangible deployment milestones, the open secret that there isn’t a robotaxi business model, etc. The biggest, however, is that supervised machine learning doesn’t live up to the hype. It isn’t actual artificial intelligence akin to C-3PO, it’s a sophisticated pattern-matching tool.

[...]

The current companies [betting a business on safe AI decision makers] who are will continue to drain momentum over the next two years, followed by a few years with nearly no investment in the space, and (hopefully) another unmanned highway test for 5 years.

I’d love to be wrong. The aging workforce which will almost certainly start to limit economic growth in the next 5–10 years; the 4000 people who die every year in truck accidents seem a needless sacrifice.

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This is all a pretty dark vision for autonomous vehicles, but it’s also pretty convincing, in that unmanned self-driving still in 2020 doesn’t feel particularly close. And it’s refreshing to hear it from someone who gave it a proper go, and who no longer has a product to sell, just the wisdom of his own experiences.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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DISCUSSION

Bingo! This is what I’ve been saying. The computers are good enough to keep the truck on the road, to follow directions, to miss most of the obvious obstacles.

But every little thing that humans have learned how to handle over years of figuring out crawling, walking, running, and not eating things that are on fire? The computers don’t do those well because there are myriad tiny little lessons in each and every moment of formative experience, and we’re trying to write all of that nuanced caution vs. confidence into the computer’s code as what amounts to an utterly staggering If-Then cascade. Small surprise a safety-first developer throws up his hands and says, Nope, let’s leave it to the monkeys. They’re better at it.

The VCs should be shaking this guy’s hand - or rather, bumping his elbow - for watching out for them, even if it isn’t them he’s actually watching out for. They’re just getting a knock-on benefit that comes in conjunction with Starsky looking out for people.

With a human driver at the wheel, blame for crashes goes to him and the company that hired him. With an autonomous truck the blame goes to the truck manufacturer, the software developer AND the company operating the truck. Starsky stepping down is insulating them venture capitalists from a LOT of liability.

I’m still just amazed that any VCs are even in this game. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to see how badly wrong this can go.