Two big 5G use cases are struggling
When 5G proponents talk about the future, autonomous cars and the metaverse often sit near the top of their list of applications that will make use of the capabilities of the technology.
But in recent weeks, both of those use cases have taken a giant step backward. Specifically, metaverse proponent Meta (formerly Facebook) lost more than $700 billion in value during 2022, with shares tumbling further this week on news that CEO Mark Zuckerberg will continue investing in metaverse services into 2023. Separately, Tesla, Ford and General Motors have all notched notable setbacks in their pursuit of autonomous cars, a concept that has received an estimated $100 billion in research and development so far. One autonomous driving pioneer recently bemoaned the fact that the technology "has delivered so little."
There is one other 5G use case that continues to move forward, seemingly oblivious to a potential worldwide recession: Smartphones. Both Samsung and Apple – the world's two biggest smartphone makers – reported ongoing demand for their products in the third quarter. That comes as somewhat of a surprise in light of global inflation and political uncertainty that some expected to chill interest in $1,000 5G phones.
"Forget about profits – what's the combined revenue of all the robo-taxi, robo-truck, robo-whatever companies? Is it a million dollars? Maybe. I think it's more like zero," Anthony Levandowski, who helped found Google's Waymo autonomous driving effort, told Bloomberg recently.
Just this week, the autonomous driving startup that Ford and Volkswagen each put millions of dollars into – Argo AI – announced it would shut down. Separately, Reuters reported that Tesla's self-driving car claims are under criminal investigation.
And Halo still has not expanded its 5G-powered driverless car service, as it had initially promised.
And earlier this year, General Motors' Cruise autonomous driving effort recalled dozens of self-driving cars after an accident.
"What's happening here is that the companies with the best product have pulled ahead and are accelerating," explained Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt this week during GM's earnings call.
But Ford CFO John Lawler is skeptical that the industry is anywhere near providing a payoff. He said it will take "much longer than we previously expected" for fully driverless cars to become widely available.
Meta and the metaverse
In the metaverse, things are equally troubling.
Broadly, network operators such as Telefonica are promising that "we will be prepared" for the metaverse. That's a noteworthy position considering many expect metaverse-style services to require lightning-fast connections and latency measurements far snappier than what today's networks offer.
For mobile networks specifically, that's a particularly tall order.
However, Meta – the company that so believes in the metaverse that Zuckerberg renamed it – is suffering under a deluge of criticism about its new strategic direction.
"Like many other companies in a zero rate world – Meta has drifted into the land of excess – too many people, too many ideas, too little urgency," Brad Gerstner of investment firm Altimeter Capital wrote just prior to the release of Meta's latest earnings.
But Zuckerberg is sticking to his metaverse guns.
"I appreciate the patience and I think that those who are patient and invest with us will be rewarded," he said this week during Meta's earnings call. Afterward, his company's shares fell to their lowest point in six years.
The dour mood among autonomous driving and metaverse proponents stands in contrast to the tone provided by Apple and Samsung.
Samsung, for example, said it expects its mobile phone business to perform even better in the fourth quarter as demand for smartphones and wearables increases due to the holidays.
The results "demonstrate our ability to execute effectively in spite of a challenging and volatile macroeconomic backdrop," Apple CFO Luca Maestri said in a statement.
To be clear, the smartphone industry continues to struggle. The latest figures from research firm Omdia – which is owned by Informa, the same company that owns Light Reading – found that the global smartphone industry collectively shipped 301.2 million units during the third quarter. That's a decrease of 7.6% compared to the same period last year, but a 2.5% increase compared to the previous quarter.
Apple has managed to excel in part "because its consumers are typically loyal and high-income customers, and as such are less affected by the current cost-of-living crisis than mid-range brands," explained Omdia analyst Jusy Hong, in a statement.
Chinese smartphone makers, on the other hand, suffered from ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns in China, among other issues.
Advanced services like autonomous driving and metaverse meetings may still hit mass market status at some point in the future. But it's unclear whether that will happen during the tenure of 5G – or if 6G will be around by then.
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