Apollo Robotaxi is running in Shougang Park when Baidu launches China’s first taxi-free taxi service in the city on May 2, 2021 in Beijing, China.

He is Luke Qianlong.com | Visual China Group | Getty Images

For years Waymo’s Alphabet and other leaders have promised that autonomous vehicles will be just around the corner. But that future has not yet come. Why not?

“In short, it’s a challenge,” said James Penn, CEO and co-founder of Pony.ai, an autonomous car company. “Every time there is a technical breakthrough, there are problems. We have artificial intelligence, fast computer chips, sensors. All this can be solved by smoothly fitting all the details. 99.9% is not enough to improve technology.”

Despite promises of saving lives, combating climate change and economic driving, the reality is that “the nirvana of an autonomous vehicle will end in 10 years,” said Michael Dunn, CEO of auto-consulting firm ZoZoGo. “While it’s impossible to get there, even the most advanced technology is still lacking and used mostly in limited areas where everything is predictable. We’re far, far from universally accepted.”

Not only that, but the business model is more of a challenge than technology, ”he said.

Self-driving cars without a steering wheel and brake pedals are quickly scaled and considered by many as a novelty. Additional road tests are needed to determine technical failures. Driver-free rules are still being developed in cities, states and countries. High price tags above $ 100,000 for cars equipped with AV are a disadvantage of individual purchases for most buyers. Commercialization is still ongoing. Safety concerns persist, especially after the fatal crash in March 2018 involving one of Uber’s cars in Tempe, Arizona, and the many incidents involving Tesla driving in self-driving mode.

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However, market leaders are betting on smarter transit technology and testing its viability by recording thousands of miles to train self-management algorithms and AI sensors to drive better than humans in all weathers and unpredictable circumstances. Technical giants, automakers and startups, including GM’s Cruise, Waymo, Baidu and others, have invested billions of dollars and years in research and development in this emerging market, which by 2030 could reach 12% of new car registrations worldwide. Meanwhile, Tesla continues its work. work on its semi-autonomous autopilot and self-management systems.

A promising future for robot taxis, robots

Now, after a decade and some difficult beginnings, it is robot taxis, delivery with robots and stand-alone trucks that are becoming the most promising money makers on the market.

“Travel is a bad business model with unhappy drivers and urban mobility issues. The next great thing could be robot parks,” said Eric Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan where he focuses on entrepreneurship and technology. It assumes city streets without accidents, beeps, congestion and dedicated lanes for self-driving cars.

In this next phase of passenger and road trials, technical difficulties are increasing due to unpredictable traffic patterns and weather factors such as fog and rain, as well as protracted problems with social awareness and acceptance.

“Large-scale commercialization of autonomous management will still take a significant amount of time,” said Dong Wei, vice president and chief security officer of Baidu Intelligent Driving Business Group in Beijing.

Paid passenger fares in robotics without a driver could be the next step towards the commercial development of this transformational market.

Pony.ai, which ranked 10th on the CNBC Disruptor 50 list for 2022, along with Baidu in Beijing, led the industry in launching a robot taxi to pay for travel in China. Two companies began charging fares in November last year in Beijing for their robot taxi services, which have a driver who controls the trip. Also in May, Pony.ai launches a paid taxi that includes 100 cars as traditional taxis in the Nansha district of Guangzhou. Both also tested reputable cars and robot taxis in the U.S., although Pony.ai tests without a driver were suspended in California after the car crashed into a partition and street sign in Fremont.

China is focusing on smart transport as a national growth strategy and has identified several sections of major cities for testing. “If you’re looking for the perfect place to test autonomous governance, it’s hard to beat China on its ambitions,” Dan said.

While Chinese and US markets are growing closely in parallel, given increased competition from US-China technology innovation and restrictions on cross-border investment, one likely scenario is “two global ecosystems, one led by China and one led by the United States and their respective systems.” governments, ”Dan said. “China doesn’t want American companies to collect data, and China, which is testing in the US, is facing the same problem. Chinese AV companies are likely to continue research and development in the US, but are deploying in China for China.”

In the US, industry leaders Waymo and Cruise expect to soon launch their own paid stray robotics in San Francisco after months of test trips with staff. In addition, Waymo plans to expand its paid driverless trips to downtown Phoenix after in late 2018 at the end of 2018 pilots paid customers in the suburbs of Chandler.

Argo AI starts running without a driver in Miami and Austin.

Provided by: Argo AI

Ford and Argo-AI, supported by VW, began operating stand-alone test vehicles without a human safety driver in Miami and Austin, Texas, moving around employees. Argo is testing its self-driving technology on the streets in eight cities in the U.S. and Europe, with some of its driver-driven safety vehicles being used by passengers in Miami Beach, Florida, through Lyft’s travel network. Lyft owns about 2.5% of the company.

Startup Zoox, acquired by Amazon, is testing its cube-like robot taxi in the Bay Area, Seattle and Las Vegas, with no initial travel fee.

Billions are put by American and Asian cars, technology giants

According to CB Insights, using the opportunity, equity funding in AV technology companies has exceeded $ 12 billion in 2021, which is more than 50% more than in 2020. U.S. funding is dominated by Waymo, which is $ 5.5 billion, including from Alphabet, and Cruise, which is backed by $ 10 billion from GM, Honda and other investors, with a $ 5 billion credit line from GM Financial. Pony.ai, co-founded by former lead developer Baidu AV Peng in 2016, is funded with $ 1.1 billion, including a $ 400 million investment from Toyota.

Startups in the AV space have connected major automakers and transportation services, such as Motional, created in 2021 through a joint venture with Hyundai and pilots with Lyft. Uber has sold its self-governing division, Advanced Technologies Group, Aurora Innovation after co-founder and former Uber CEO Travis Kolonik touted self-management as a priority. Aurora, in which Amazon, Hyundai and venture capitalists Sequoia Capital and Greylock have invested, is working to launch a commercial system of robotic trucks by the end of 2023, followed by a robot taxi project.

Several other market segments stand out as differences between companies that develop commercial robotic taxis. One of the most advanced as it seeks to diversify its search and advertising core, Baidu supplies its “brains” Apollo Go AV to robo buses and other vehicles in China, providing automakers with solutions for Apollo self-management. The monthly price for Apollo Go for five years is comparable to the cost of a driver’s job in major Chinese cities, a Baidu spokesman said. The company also sells intelligent transportation solutions with projects in 34 cities of China to improve road conditions, road safety and air quality. Baidu has also teamed up with Geely (Chinese owners Volvo) to fund its JIDU business to produce intelligent electric vehicles and mass-produce robotics, which will be launched in 2023.

The production of robots is expensive, but is being pursued as another market commercialization strategy. Cruz has partnered with GM and Honda to mass-produce Origin, an all-electric self-driving, shared vehicle that is due to come out within a few years at GM Factory Zero’s assembly plant in Detroit. Amazon-owned Zoox has built dozens of electric stand-alone robots at its Fremont plant, which are gradually unfolding. Waymo is expanding its current fleet of I-Pacer and Chrysler Pacifica hybrids, manufactured in Detroit, and is working with Chinese automaker Geely to equip its fully electric, purpose-built cars for U.S. roads in the coming years. Pony.ai recently unveiled its sixth-generation autonomous driving system, hoping to equip the seven-seater Toyota Sienna model and begin road tests in China this year with a 2023 robot taxi.

Robot-based delivery services are also becoming an effective way to commercial scale and profitability. Cruise is partnering with Walmart in the Phoenix area to deliver products and plans to expand the service nationwide, said Gil West, Cruise’s chief operating officer. Nuro, a Silicon Valley robotics startup with stand-alone delivery, is testing a bot service for Walmart and Kroger customers in several cities, and recently added 7-Eleven customers to Mountain View. This month, Uber began pilot deliveries of food by sidewalk robots and cars in Los Angeles.

For Zoox, a possible scenario is to deliver Amazon to the last mile of its shuttles. “We don’t rule this out as an option to use,” said Jesse Levinson, CTO and co-founder of Zoox. “Our business model charges people money for travel. The biggest price of a car with shared driving is the driver. We can depreciate the cost of a vehicle at these rates for five years.”

This may seem unintuitive, but long-distance AV trucking is moving, perhaps the fastest in this emerging market. Jim Shinman, managing co-founder of Maven Ventures and first investor in Cruise, noted that Embark Truck and other trucking companies will greatly help the trillion-dollar market. “Not only by maintaining our freight prices, which will continue to be so important in a world of long-term supply chain problems and inflation, but also to help with labor shortages on long-distance trucking, and much more environmentally friendly,” – Shinman . said. “Mass victories for all and for the planet,” he added.

One of the newcomers is Locomation from Pittsburgh, a hybrid semi-autonomous technology for convoys with two trucks, with the driver in the main vehicle watching the trip and the other not working in the accompanying truck while resting. “Given the demand for freight and the shortage of drivers, this is helping to solve the pain point,” said Cetine Mericley, co-founder of Locomation, which has tested with three national trucking customers. “This system can double the efficiency of drivers, maintain trucks more often and speed up delivery,” he said. “In 2020, our first standalone delivery was a trailer full of TP.”

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