Where is my robotaxi? Autonomous vehicles are an example of a futuristic concept that everyone knows will become reality soon, but as of October 2022 the possibility has yet to emerge as a mainstream everyday option.
According to Phocuswright's latest travel research report Autonomous Vehicles: When Will They Have an Impact?, over the next 12-18 months, multiple global trials will lead to increased autonomous vehicle usage and consumer awareness, impacting the in-destination experience in more significant ways than simply eliminating a human driver.
Because major tech giants such as Alphabet, Apple and Amazon are behind many of the autonomous driving efforts, it may result in further dominance of tech players as gatekeepers of travel information. Imagine stepping into a robotaxi that immediately interacts with your Google or Apple accounts and preferences, suggesting nearby areas of interest that are related to your profile preferences. Phocuswright's Autonomous Vehicles: When Will They Have an Impact? explores the emerging role autonomous vehicles will play in mobility, and the new opportunities and challenges for the travel industry.
What Are the Applications for Autonomous Vehicles?
It is important to separate and clearly define the different applications of autonomous vehicles. A full analysis and breakdown of each application can be found in the article here.
- Self-driving cars
- Autonomous buses, vans and trams
What Technologies Are Used in Autonomous Vehicles?
Autonomous vehicles work with sensor and connectivity technologies: cameras, radar, lidar and ultrasonics. Each of these types of sensors have their own limitations.
- Camera-based sensors are unable to detect objects in foggy areas, rain or at night.
- Radar uses radio waves to detect vehicles/objects and is accurate in all conditions of visibility, but because of its longer wavelength is unable to differentiate type of object without a human driver.
- Lidar (light detection and ranging) is essential for full driverless capability, with much higher resolution to detect any object around the car's surroundings. However, the lidar laser beams do not provide accurate results in weather conditions like snow, smoke, fog or smog. And lidar is expensive; it costs ten times as much as radar and camera sensors.
- Ultrasonic or short-range sensors send ultrasonic waves to detect echoes from the objects/obstacles using transmitter-receiver pair.
- Self-driving cars navigate by relying on maps, which are created using cameras and lidars to map territory in detail.
- Some believe that 5G will be a key element of autonomous driving vehicles, providing the fast wireless speeds needed for near-instant communication.
Who Is Driving the Autonomous Vehicle Trend?
Two large groups of companies are driving the push toward autonomous vehicles: tech giants and automobile manufactures, often as joint ventures. The sections below detail some of the top technology and automobile company efforts. The following sections have been edited; full analysis and examples can be found in the article here.
Alphabet (Waymo): Alphabet's self-driving unit, Waymo, was established over a decade ago, and in May 2022, Waymo announced that it was pulling the human safety driver out of its recently expanded robotaxi operations in downtown Phoenix.
Amazon/Zoox: After filing a patent in 2015 for autonomous lane-switching technology, Amazon first invested in and then acquired autonomous tech startup Zoox, a company operated by Google and Tesla veterans, for $1.2 billion. Amazon is also working on multi-function autonomous vehicles with Toyota.
Apple: Apple hired a former Waymo and NASA engineer in June 2018 to head Project Titan and acquired Drive.ai in June 2019. Though Project Titan's plan are secretive, Apple has secured several autonomous driving patents.
Baidu: In July 2022, Baidu, China's search engine giant, unveiled its new autonomous vehicle with a detachable steering wheel, with plans to put it to use for its robotaxi service in China in 2023. The company intends to deploy tens of thousands of autonomous vehicles across China.
Pony.ai: In April 2022, Pony.ai was one of two robotaxi operators awarded a permit by Beijing city authorities to offer driverless service in southeastern Beijing.
Uber/Aurora: Back in 2015, Uber's then-CEO Travis Kalanick hired some 40 roboticists from the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon which became its ATG unit. In December of 2020, Uber sold off the 1,200 person ATG unit to self-driving tech developer Aurora. Uber invested $400 million in Aurora as part of the deal, bringing Aurora's valuation to $10 billion and tripling its workforce. Uber's CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has a seat on Aurora's board.
Jaguar/Waymo: In March 2018, Jaguar Land Rover announced a new partnership with Waymo to build a fleet of electric self-driving cars.
Ford/Volkswagen/ArgoAI: Ford and VW-backed Argo AI have begun operating autonomous test vehicles without a human safety driver in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, moving around employees.
General Motors/Cruise: General Motors' Cruise robotaxi unit has lost nearly $5 billion since 2018, even as the company starts charging for rides in San Francisco.
Hyundai/Aptiv (Motional): Motional - a joint venture from Hyundai and Aptiv - has just announced that their latest driverless IONIQ 5-based robotaxi (hereafter referred to as IONIQ 5 robotaxi) will be available from 2023.
Mercedes/Bosch: Bosch launched a trial for a self-driving taxi service in San Jose, California, and has invested $1.1 billion in a facility for producing semiconductors that will be used in self-driving, smart home, and smart city technologies.
Nissan/Renault: Nissan and Renault created the Alliance Intelligent Cloud partnership to deliver cloud-connected cars in about 200 markets. They've partnered with Waymo to bring self-driving cars and trucks to Japan and France. They also began a partnership with DeNA to run self-driving taxi trials in Yokohama.
The companies and initiatives mentioned above represent only a partial list of robotaxi and autonomous vehicle projects.
The full article explores the emerging role autonomous vehicles will play in mobility, and the new opportunities and challenges for the travel industry. It expands upon the developments from each of the tech companies and manufacturers above.
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