If you live in a major U.S. city, you might have recently seen some bizarre-looking vehicles on the roads. Some are shaped like shuttles while others look more like traditional cars. But the most unique feature is their lack of a driver. In cities across the nation, driverless cars are being tested in an effort to advance mobility solutions. This reflects the next step in autonomous transportation, having eliminated the presence of human safety drivers in the vehicle. And if all goes well, robotaxi fleets will be an everyday presence in a couple of years.
The landscape for driverless cars is not only vast but also highly competitive. A number of companies are stepping up their game as of late. Some are well-established major automakers, others are joint ventures, and some are small startups. But each one is advancing their efforts to make robotaxi services a reality. And as more and more people see these strange vehicles roaming around, the more comfortable they’ll be. Perhaps, by the time they are routinely available, they’ll seem quite normal and expected.
“Getting to driverless in San Francisco took more than five years of rigorous testing, over 2 million miles of driving in one of the craziest driving environments, together with hard work from a huge team of dedicated engineers and others across Cruise, as well as at General Motors.” – Dan Ammann, CEO, Cruise
Leveraging Partnerships to Gain Ground
When it comes to driverless cars, the name of the game is collaboration. This not only speaks to the expertise required for such endeavors from a variety of fields. But it also speaks to the level of investment required. General Motors has acknowledged spending billions on its robotaxi and autonomous car programs. The amount of testing involved, the sensor equipment required, and the teams of experts demand big dollar investments. It’s therefore not surprising that most of the current projects involving driverless cars have multiple stakeholders.
In terms of General Motors, it partners with Honda to form Cruise several years back. Cruise was recently granted permission by California to test its robotaxi models on the streets of San Francisco. Amazon purchased Zoox for $1.2 billion in June and now operates a bidirectional robotaxi model. These driverless cars are already being tested in the streets of San Francisco as well as Las Vegas. And Motional, a joint venture between Aptiv and Hyundai, has spent over $4 billion on its autonomous transportation pursuits. Partnering with Lyft, it has already performed 100,000 self-driving rides to date.
“Our aim is to not only build safe, reliable, and accessible driverless vehicles, but to deliver them at significant scale. We’re partnering with Lyft to do exactly that.” – Karl Iagnemma, CEO and President, Motional
Different Companies, Different Styles
Despite several driverless cars being designed by existing car companies, the actual appearance of most is anything but typical. Most are more modular in nature and resemble some kind of futuristic shuttle in their looks. But each one has different features and capacities. For example, Zook’s (Amazon’s) robotaxi is capable of traveling up to 75 miles per hour. It also can operate for 16 straight hours and travel forward and backward. And it holds 8 people with 4 seated on benches facing one another.
Zoox’s robotaxi looks much different from Motional’s driverless cars. Before partnering with Hyundai, Aptiv was using BMW 5 series and Chrysler Pacifica minivans as base models. However, since that time, they have now adopted a Hyundai vehicle platform. Though integrated with sensors, software, and other features, it looks very much like a normal car. Thus, even if you happened to see it on the streets of Boston, Las Vegas or Pittsburgh, you might not have noticed it.
“Amazon is incredibly excited about the opportunity to move people around cities, because that’s arguably a larger market. They and we are not pivoting to package delivery, we’re focused on moving people.” Jesse Levinson, Founder and CTO, Zoox
The Current Robotaxi Landscape
Within the last few months, several autonomous transportation companies have made strides and progress. As noted, Cruise has begun tested driverless cars in San Francisco. Zoox and Motional are also testing robotaxi models in more than one city with notable success. But they’re not the only ones. Beep, a small autonomous shuttle company in Orlando, has begun operating its robotaxi shuttle at Disneyworld and in St. Petersburg. Likewise, Alibaba-owner AutoX has over 100 driverless cars operating in China. Though operations remain limited, it’s evident major advances are being made in the public’s use of these vehicles.
Alphabet also made major news recently in terms of driverless cars. Waymo, its autonomous transportation division, has been testing for-hire driverless cars in Phoenix for over a year. But Waymo recently announced construction of a fake city in East Liberty, Ohio, for advanced autonomous car testing as well. The fake city will mimic a dense urban environment with a number of hazards and threats for driverless cars. This environment will stress Waymo’s hardware and software to the max. if successful, Waymo anticipates not only launching a more robust robotaxi service. It also expects to provide comprehensive autonomous trucking transport as well.
Progress is Slow but Definitely Steady
Several autonomous transportation companies predicted driverless cars by 2019, including General Motors. Notably, these predictions were a bit optimistic. But based on current testing approvals, it’s clear that robotaxi programs are around the corner. As the public is introduced to these programs, trust will increase. Likewise, most cities have numerous restrictions including speed limits, weather restrictions, and limited locations of use. Most experts now suggest 2023 may be a more realistic date for driverless cars to become ubiquitous. If that’s the case, then we’d better get ready.
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