They may not be ubiquitous yet, but automated technologies across the automotive industry are starting to come of age. The ‘robotaxi’ industry and autonomous trucks are on the cusp of real-world use, and next-generation sensor technologies are being deployed on vehicles that are for sale. Here is a look at some of the most exciting developments from the last year.
Robotaxis Services Coming Online
Commercial service robotaxis have come online in San Francisco. This is a major milestone, but it is not as exciting as it initially sounds.
Cruise was the first to reach the milestone. Their journey began in October 2020, when Cruise was awarded a driverless testing permit by California DMV. It could run the vehicles without anyone on board, not even a test driver. In June 2021, it was given permission to start offering rides without a safety driver on board. These were free rides — no paying customers — an important distinction. The big step came in September 2021 when both Waymo and Cruise were awarded a “driverless deployment permit”. The final part of the puzzle would be gaining permission to operate a commercial service from California Public Utilities Commission, which was awarded to Cruise in June 2022.
However, only 30 vehicles, out of Cruise’s fleet of approximately 150 vehicles, are allowed to be used and only in a small part of the city. Still, a step in the right direction.
Outside of the U. S., China has also been ramping up its autonomous robotaxi deployments. Baidu and Pony.ai conduct significant testing in Beijing and, like Cruise and Waymo, have limited commercial robotaxi services. Baidu and Pony.ai were given permission to start a robotaxi service with no driver behind the wheel in April of this year, with one slight catch. Their services must still have a supervisor present in the vehicle
This future mobility solution is fast becoming not so new, not so exciting and possibly soon confined to history. The concept of a roboshuttle-powered future is that these small, shared vehicles will be able to operate more flexibly than a bus, offering more diverse routes and some working on an on-demand basis.
The pioneers in this industry are EasyMile and Navya, two French companies with similar vehicles and funding of around €100 million each. Over the years, they have supplied around 200 vehicles each to different companies, transport agencies, and other mobility stakeholders that are interested in trialing the technology. But they appear no closer to deploying a commercial roboshuttle service. Even more concerning is that interest in these vehicles seems to be on the decline. Notable companies such as Local Motors have closed their doors, while others like Continental and Bosch have shown concepts in the past but then gone quiet on the topic.
Autonomous trucks have become one of the most exciting autonomous prospects this year. A key development in the field occurred when field leader TuSimple completed an 80-mile journey across Arizona with an empty cabin and zero human intervention. All the conditions are right for this industry to explode: a measurable and known driver shortage in the U. S., Europe and China, the massive growth in e-commerce and the need for more freight on the road. There is also significant overlap between the capability of today’s autonomous technology and the demands of the environment that the vehicles will operate in. The first deployments will likely be between distribution hubs separated by vast stretches of interstate. This eliminates the more challenging scenarios for autonomous vehicles, such as pedestrians, stop signs, un-protected left turns and turning right on red lights which rely on human judgment. Finally, autonomous trucks can bring a significant increase in productivity. Many of the journeys across the U. S. take several days for humans to complete due to driving time limits. Autonomous vehicles will not be subject to this. It looks like the stars are aligning for autonomous trucks.
Trends in Automotive LiDAR
The last year or so seems to have been a turning point for LiDAR, with more OEMs announcing models that will be equipped with them. Volvo will be using Luminar along with Chinese OEM SAIC. Continental and Denso are shipping on Toyotas and Lexus. The Audi A8 carries a Valeo, as do some Mercedes. BMW have chosen Innoviz, as have Volkswagen, and the list goes on. With the automotive industry’s current focus on safety and the benefits that LiDAR has been promising, this trickle-down effect might look more like a gush/pour/stream/cascade than a trickle.
Three Predictions for 2023
Here are three predictions for 2023:
1. Robotaxi service expansion: There are now a small handful of robotaxi services coming online in the U.S. Next year this will grow. It is unlikely that many new cities will go online; but the services in existing cities will grow — particularly Cruise in San Francisco.
2. Commercial ‘driver-out’ autonomous trucking will enter a trialing phase: IDTechEx thinks that in 2023 the first commercial autonomous truck routes without a driver behind the wheel will go online. This will likely start with a single route, perhaps Tucson to Phoenix, as demonstrated by TuSimple. However, IDTechEx thinks a handful of routes and companies will be online by the end of next year.
3. More level three vehicles in Europe enabled by higher performing radar and LiDAR: There has only been one true level three car on the market, the Mercedes S-Class. However, its level three functionality could only be used in Germany. IDTechEx thinks that next year more OEMs like BMW, and Stellantis will be looking to deploy level three vehicles. Additionally, the UK and some European countries will likely allow level three to be used on their roads. In Germany, there may be the level three speed limit increase from 60kph to 130kph thanks to a UNECE regulation change coming into effect in January. Level three in the U. S. and China is harder to predict. They pushed the bounds of what is possible and are lobbying for more regulation around higher automated level deployments. IDTechEx does not think it will be long before deployments are seen here as well.