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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Steering wheels give way for robotaxis

After years of waiting, we've grown tired of the ambitious promises from car companies: The long-promised revolution of self-driving cars has yet to materialize. But developers say they're now finally gearing up to put driverless cars on roads. Here's what to expect.

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“We are always five years away from self-driving cars” is a joke doing the rounds in the automotive industry.

That’s because countless manufacturers have said over and over again that robot cars would appear in everyday road traffic in five years.

One five-year deadline after another came and went – and yet, despite all the demos and visions unveiled at industry events, robot taxis are limited to a few test projects today.

But that’s about to change, several companies promised at this year’s CES technology fair in Las Vegas.

Yes, manufacturers are still saying it’s going to take a few years. But this time it looks like they’re truly close.

The technology that could make autonomous driving possible is about to enter the cars of various manufacturers.

Production vehicles in around 2025

At CES, for example, Mobileye, a company belonging to Intel, and the chip specialist Nvidia showed off a new computer system designed to process data from cameras and other sensors and control cars.

Nvidia Drive Hyperion and Mobileye’s EyeQ are expected to be available in the first production vehicles by the middle of the 2020s.

“I don’t see anything that can stop us, neither regulatory, nor technical, nor in terms of customer acceptance,” said Mobileye manager Johann Jungwirth. The time of self-driving cars is indeed upon us, he promised.

Nvidia’s car boss Danny Shapiro also sees a trend thanks to which autonomous functions could be available sooner, not only in expensive cars.

The first car manufacturers have started to install driving computers in their entire model range – even if they’re not all activated yet.

Once they’re available and road legal, manufacturers will be able to earn more. Even in an entry-level model, the owner can activate new functions over time, and that changes the manufacturer’s business, Shapiro says.

The hardware needed for autonomous driving is also becoming steadily cheaper. This is especially true for laser radars (lidar) that scan the vehicles’ surroundings.

Apart from Tesla boss Elon Musk, who wants to make do with cameras and artificial intelligence alone, almost all other industry players still consider them indispensable, at least today.

Lidar systems could once cost 70,000 dollars and more, but now some suppliers have lowered the price to a few thousand.

Unanswered questions

Even though the technology for autonomous driving is close to becoming reality (at least in some situations) many questions remain unanswered.

Will we first see it in robotaxis, private vehicles or trucks? Or will farmers even beat city dwellers to the driverless future with the help of John Deere’s newly unveiled self-driving tractors?

“I already believe that it will take a period of at least 10 years before we will see a significant proportion – about 5 per cent – of truly highly automated or autonomous vehicles,” says mobility expert Jürgen Reers from the consulting firm Accenture.

“There is a big gap between what is technically possible – and what is feasible in the reality of cities as we find them today.”

Artificial intelligence is reaching its limits there, he said. Not only vehicles have to be upgraded, but also the infrastructure – and also separate lanes for different mobility offers.

In recent years, it has often been predicted that the autonomous vehicle of the future will most likely be a robot taxi that you don’t own, but only use when needed.

Such services are already being attempted by Google sister company Waymo and General Motors subsidiary Cruise, among others. GM CEO Marry Barra announced during her online appearance at CES that the US company also wants to launch a self-driving car for consumers in the mid-2020s.

The main challenge is the cost.

Mobileye boss Amnon Shashua the price of autonomous driving tech needs to be less than 5,000 dollars per vehicle to make it affordable.

But robotaxis and self-driving shuttles for up to 20 passengers are still seen as the most efficient way to deploy the technology. That’s because they drive enough to make the high hardware costs worth it.

The consulting firm McKinsey predicts that in the next decade, travelling by a driverless shuttle will be up to 40 per cent cheaper per kilometre than by private car. Robotaxis would then be 20 per cent more expensive than a private car.

Private cars: A thing of the past

“From the mid-2030s onwards, it can be assumed that, at least in cities with 300,000 or more inhabitants, there will no longer be any reason to drive into the city in a private car,” says McKinsey expert Kersten Heineke.

The development could also go faster – for example, if cities were to intervene with higher parking costs or a city toll to force private vehicles out of cities.

Nvidia manager Shapiro sees – also as a consequence of the boom in online retail due to the pandemic – a growing interest in autonomous freight transport.

“While there continues to be progress in robotaxis, I think among the first autonomous offerings will be a lot of commercial vehicles and trucks.” When it comes to self-driving semi-trucks, companies such as Waymo, Aurora, TuSimple and Embark are currently vying for space on the road.

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