The quest for the self-driving car has become a money pit, with the handful of companies that invested $16 billion in recent years having little to show.

Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise and Uber Technologies have together put in about half the total, according to an investigation by The Information. Most of the remaining $8 billion was spent by four companies: Apple, Baidu, Ford and Toyota. A number of startups and established carmakers are also in the game, bringing the number of companies in the space to 30, The Information reported.

The challenge is to create and build an autonomous vehicle that’s beyond safe — safer than human-driven cars with advanced features. That may require billions more dollars. The payoff, if it ever comes, would be huge: GM’s Cruise estimates that the global autonomous vehicle industry is an $8 trillion market opportunity, unit CEO Dan Ammann said Wednesday at an investor day in New York.

The Information said it calculated the minimum amounts that the best-known developers have spent based on disclosures and estimates from people who have worked at the 10 of the top 11 investors on the list.

“One thing that’s becoming clearer: The amount a company has spent on research and development doesn’t necessarily correlate with how far along it has come in terms of software or hardware quality or the scale of its tests,” the report said.

Prototypes need to be built — at a cost of $250,000 to $500,000 each — and then road-tested. Vehicles require mapping data and internal software and hardware to help the car recognize objects and drive around it, and the cars need to be trained to perform a variety of tasks. All those things are expensive — and salaries and bonus payouts for engineers top the cost structure, the report showed.

Waymo has probably spent the most on autonomous vehicles and likely has the most-advanced prototype, but “isn’t close to being a functional business,” The Information said. “GM and Ford are the ones to watch because in the coming years, they plan to manufacture special vehicles with no steering wheels, powered by software developed by their Cruise and Argo units, respectively. That’s likely going to be a multibillion-dollar effort for both carmakers.”

  • Waymo’s robotaxis logged 4 million miles in 2018 on public roads in the U.S., more than any other rival, according to a Business Insider report.
  • “Our goal in the simplest possible terms is to build a superior product,” Cruise’s Ammann said at the investor day, according to CNBC. “It’s to build a product that is better than what people have as transportation alternatives today.”
  • Autonomous cars may never become feasible, some say for a variety of reasons. In the meantime, advances in software coming out of the research may still make roads safer.
  • Elon Musk has pushed back his deadline for a Tesla self-driving car several times over the past few years, with June 2020, his last prediction, coming fast.