CEO of Failed Self-Driving Truck Startup Drops Dire Warning in Farewell Message
San Francisco, CA – A highly-publicized self-driving truck startup unceremoniously closed its doors for good last week, but largely lost in the announcement was a dire warning by the company’s CEO regarding the future of the driverless truck business.
In a blog post on March 19, Starsky Robotics co-founder and CEO, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, informed the world the San Francisco-based autonomous truck startup was officially dead.
In a detailed look back at the company’s successes and failures during its nearly five year run, Seltz-Axmacher weighed in on the future of artificial intelligence (AI) in trucking.
More specifically, he addressed his area of considerable learning… AI-driven trucks, and those who are sinking billions of dollars into driverless technologies with the hopes of a massive pay day in the not-too-distant future.
Near the end of the piece, Seltz-Axmacher issues a dire warning most media coverage either glossed over or didn’t report at all.
“No one should be betting a business on safe AI decision makers,” he wrote. “The current companies 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.”
Some will immediately discount Seltz-Axmacher’s analysis and point to Starsky’s failure as evidence his opinion should be discounted.
Others will dismiss Seltz-Axmacher’s perspective because, unlike competitors such as Plus.ai, Waymo, and TuSimple, Starsky focused on developing and integrating teleoperation technology.
Teleoperation is autonomous technology which allows a driver to remotely-control a big rig while hundreds of miles away.
However, a deeper look suggests that such a derisive and dismissive outlook on Seltz-Axmacher’s experience could be perilous for venture capitalists (VC) and the motoring public.
Seltz-Axmacher dedicated much of the blog to laying the groundwork for his rationale before making such a prediction.
At the heart of his concerns about the future of the business is “safety.”
“The biggest limiter of autonomous deployments isn’t sales, it’s safety,” he declared. “By definition building safety is building the unexceptional; you’re specifically trying to make a system which works without exception.”
To be clear, it’s not that self-driving technology can’t operate big rigs safely in certain “limited-use cases,” because it can, Seltz-Axmacher argues.
The problem is that building a driverless truck with AI that never fails is “really, really hard,” he conceded.
In fact, Seltz-Axmacher said it’s so difficult and costly to do, he doesn’t believe any existing autonomous truck startups will ship vehicles with AI capable of performing to an “human equivalence” standard within the next ten years.
“There aren’t many startups that can survive ten years without shipping, which means that almost no current autonomous team will ever ship AI decision makers if this is the case,” he stated.
Seltz-Axmacher’s sober view is made even more remarkable given the fact he is a passionate advocate for AI.
Let’s not forget, he says he began Starsky in 2015 because he viewed the “4,000 people who die every year in truck accidents” as a “needless sacrifice.”
Even though he has gained valuable insight into the limits of AI’s capabilities to return a profitable trucking business to investors, he remains confident self-driving trucks will have a place on U.S. roadways one day, albeit only in certain driving scenarios.
“If we showed anything at Starsky, it’s that this is buildable if you religiously focus on getting the person out of the vehicle in limited-use cases.”
Photo courtesy of Starsky Robotics/Stefan Seltz-Axmacher/Medium
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