It will be 25 years before self-driving cars take off in America, says early Uber investor Bill Gurley

Bill Gurley
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Bill Gurley

Venture capitalist Bill Gurley thinks it will be more than 25 years before the majority of rides in any major American city are performed by autonomous vehicles with no steering wheel.

"We have created a society where you can sue anybody for anything," Gurley said.

But Asia, Gurley said, is a different story.

"That's going to happen first in Singapore or China, most likely China I would say, for a couple of reasons," Gurley said.

"You have a single-minded government that can make decisions implicitly. You have a much higher death rate per mile driven...so you have more of an incentive. There's zero chance that China can evolve the way America did as far as cars per household — it's just impossible, there's no roads....it's just much more likely to happen there."

Gurley spoke with angel investor Jason Calacanis from the LAUNCH Festival in San Francisco. Both are investors in Uber, which has an existential need for self-driving technology, according to boss Travis Kalanick. Gurley in particular has a lot to gain from Uber's success: The firm where he's a partner, Benchmark Capital, invested $11 million in the fledgling company in 2011 at a valuation of $60 million, according to Crunchbase. Uber is now worth more than 1,000 times that -- its last private valuation was $68 billion.

But Uber's self-driving car division has been under pressure, after a lawsuit alleging it had stolen trade secrets from Alphabet's Waymo. Plus, the company sold its China operations to local brand Didi last year, after investing billions in China without turning a profit.

Calacanis said they could not comment on the specifics of what's going on at Uber.

Over the next five years, hundreds of companies will claim to have successful self-driving cars, Gurley said. But he said he's reading between the lines of press releases, which often tout tests in very controlled environments that do not totally reflect the real world.

"The part we haven't figured out yet, the last 3 percent, which is snow, rain, all the really, really hard stuff — it really is hard," Gurley said. "They have done all the easy stuff."

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