Self-Driving Ubers of the Future Will Deliver Stuff, Not People
Autonomous ride-hailing services seem less appealing than ever before
2020 was supposed to be the year that automated robotaxis took over the world. But instead of the year in which we can finally enjoy our robotaxi rides, this year has become the one in which much of the world’s economy ground to a halt because of an organism we can’t even see. Things are so bad that Uber is planning to lay off 14% of its staff (3,700 full-time employees) in the next week. In addition to killing hundreds of thousands of people and infecting millions, the coronavirus has also upended the plans to transform transportation.
Even before this virus emerged in late 2019, the reality of automated driving had already shifted significantly. The process of developing this technology has demonstrated yet again how much we don’t know when we start something like this. While the basics of making a vehicle start, move, and steer are reasonably well understood 13 years after the end of the DARPA Grand Challenge, doing it at a level where it is consistently safer and smoother than human drivers was not. Nobody was close to selling a truly driverless vehicle.
There are now a number of commercial robotaxi services operating around the world. These range from the fixed-route shuttles running in places like Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan campus to on-road microtransit like the service run in several cities by May Mobility to automated ride-hailing like Aptiv in Las Vegas and Waymo in suburban Phoenix. But regardless of the type of vehicles being used and where they operate, all these vehicles that carry passengers also have at least one safety operator on board. Waymo has done some driverless rides as part of its Early Rider beta, but that is a more limited program that members of the public can apply to participate in. Waymo started charging for rides to Early Rider users in 2019 after initially offering the service for free.
In mid-2019, Cruise, which is majority-owned by General Motors, delayed its plan to launch a commercial robotaxi service in San Francisco but did not announce a new date. At the reveal of the Cruise Origin robotaxi in January 2020, CTO Kyle Vogt acknowledged that these vehicles need superhuman levels of…