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After a Year of Setbacks, Where Do Robotaxis Go in 2024?

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A dangerous accident involving a vehicle belonging to Cruise, one of the top robotaxi companies, in San Francisco in October caused heinous setbacks for the technology’s future.

In 2023, it almost appeared as though robotaxis ‘ promise would soon come true. In San Francisco, hailing a robotaxi had shortly emerged as the newest trend, making it as easy and commonplace as using an app to order delivery. But, that dream came true in October when one of the top US robotaxi companies, Cruise, was involved in a fatal car accident in downtown San Francisco, which stoked mistrust and cast an ominous cloud over the technology’s future.

The state of California permanently halted Cruise’s operations that after that death and another accident, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started looking into the business. Since then, 24 % of Cruise’s workforce has been laid off, and all of its vehicles have been removed from the road.

Another robotaxi companies are also moving forward despite this. Robotaxis fleets operated by businesses like Waymo and Baidu are also available for testing in a dozen cities in the US and China. These vehicles can now be driven without people safety operators thanks to regulations in cities like San Francisco, Phoenix, Beijing, and Shanghai.

But other dangers are still present. Robotaxi companies must generate revenue from the sizable investments made to get them up and running. Robotaxis wo n’t be able to meaningfully compete with traditional taxis and Uber until it becomes more affordable. However, if businesses attempt to boost adoption very quickly, they run the risk of following in Cruise’s footsteps. Another significant robotaxi operator, Waymo, has been moving more slowly and gently. However, nobody is immune to mishaps.

According to Missy Cummings, a professor and director of the Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center at George Mason University,” If they have an accident, it’s going to be big news and it will hurt everyone.” The main lesson of this year is that. The entire sector is operating on thin ice.

Experts were interviewed by MIT&nbsp, Technology Review about how to comprehend the difficulties the robotaxi industry was facing. They anticipate it changing in the following ways in 2024.

Money, money, and more money

Companies have shown that a version of the automatic driving technology is available today, albeit with some significant asterisks, after years of testing robotaxis on the road. They are restricted to warmer climates because snow can be difficult for the cars ‘ cameras and sensors, and while some cars no longer have a human driver in the driver’s seat, they also need distant operators to take control in case of emergencies.

These systems also rely on some distant people supervision to operate properly, according to what has been made public. Ramanarayan Vasudevan, an associate professor of robotics and electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, explains why he is referring to them as automated more than autonomous.

The issue is that compared to conventional taxis, this type of automatic driving is significantly more expensive. According to him, a robotaxi ride can be “many orders of magnitude more expensive than what it costs another taxi companies.” Unfortunately, I do n’t believe that technology will significantly change in the upcoming year to significantly reduce that cost.

Demand will certainly be reduced by the higher ticket price. Robotaxis needs to make the service less expensive than other modes of transportation if they want to keep customers—not only those who are interested in trying it out for the second time.

This worry is shared by Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina. These businesses are in competition with an Uber driver who, according to estimates, earns less than the minimum wage, owns a subpar vehicle, and likely maintains it themselves.

Robotaxis, on the other hand, are pricey vehicles loaded with cameras, sensors, and cutting-edge software systems that need constant supervision and assistance from people. At least until a lot more robotaxis can be introduced, it’s nearly impossible for them to compete with ride-sharing services at this point.

Concerns that robotaxi companies are not receiving enough money in return for their significant expenditure are also growing as they continue to burn investors ‘ money, according to Smith. As a result, there is even greater pressure to achieve results while weighing possible costs and revenues. The opposition to expanding.

San Francisco, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas are the current four US cities where people can ride a robotaxi.

The terms vary depending on the city. While some only allow you to operate the vehicles in a tiny area, others simply let you sign up for waitlists, which can take months to clear.

The operator must purchase more autonomous vehicles to keep up with demand as well as thoroughly map the new area (and keep that map current) in order to expand robotaxi services into a new city.

Additionally, according to Cummings, who is examining how to gauge this kind of adaptability, cars whose automatic systems are focused, say, on San Francisco, have a limited capacity to adapt to Austin. She says,”If I take that as a simple research question, it probably means the businesses have n’t discovered anything significant yet.”

These elements have come together to rekindle worries about robotaxis ‘ financial viability. Waymo, the other significant robotaxi company in the US, has n’t stepped in to fill the void even after Cruise removed its vehicles from the road. There is n’t much of a desire for endless expansion because each robotaxi ride currently costs the company more money than it makes.

Global growth

Robotaxis is being researched, tested, and yet used outside of the US.

The different leader at the moment is China, which is moving along about on the same timeline as the US. Beijing and Shanghai were two Chinese cities that received government approval in 2023 to operate robotaxies on the road without any safety operators. But, the cars can only be used in a few small, somewhat isolated parts of the cities, making it difficult for the majority of people to access the service.

With the aid of Chinese and American businesses, the Middle East is also rapidly establishing itself in the industry. Saudi Arabia gave Pony, a Chinese robotaxi startup,$ 100 million in investment. AI will transport its vehicles to Neom, a modern city it is reportedly building with the most cutting-edge technology. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are vying for the title of the primary cities in the Middle East to operate autonomous vehicles, which are made by Cruise and the Foreign company WeRide.

The same fundamental problem that Taiwanese robotaxi companies face as their US competitors is demonstrating their profitability. A new trend was introduced to the Chinese industry in 2023 as a result of monetization efforts: Foreign self-driving companies are now vying to sell their autopilot systems to various businesses. By repackaging their technologies into less sophisticated but more in-demand services, such as industrial autopilot systems that can be sold to carmakers, they are able to make some quick money.

However, robotaxi development in Europe has lagged behind, in part because those nations favor the use of intelligent vehicles in public transportation. Robotics are currently running road tests in Germany, the UK, France, and the Netherlands, but business operations are still a far-off possibility.

Lessons from the disaster on Cruise

Cruise’s horrible experience highlights one significant obstacle that robotaxis also faces: they occasionally act wildly. A passing Cruise car ran over the pedestrian and dragged her 20 feet before stopping when a people driver struck her in San Francisco in October while driving away from the scene.

According to Cathy Chase, president of the advocacy group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC,” we are deeply concerned that more people will be killed, more first responders will become obstructed, and more sudden stops will occur.” ” Autonomous vehicles are not against us. We are worried about the risky deployment and the traveling public’s expense in the rush to the market.

She claims that these businesses simply are n’t providing enough information to demonstrate how secure their vehicles are. Although they must provide information to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the information is greatly redacted before it is made public in order to safeguard trade secrets. According to Chase, some national legislation that was proposed in the previous year but has n’t passed could actually simplify these reporting requirements.

If there is any good news about this accident, it is that people had to accept the fact that these procedures are complicated and certainly entirely straightforward, according to Cummings. The industry will probably become more dependent on isolated human operators as a result, which may have altered how the Cruise vehicle handled the October accident. However, adding more people will more tip the scales in favor of profitability.

The California Public Utilities Commission, however, charged Cruise with deceiving the open and regulators about its role in the incident. Smith asserts that if we cannot put our trust in these businesses, they have no business operating on our roads.

A Cruise spokesman informed MIT&nbsp, Technology Review that the company does not already have any updates to share but cited a blog post from November in which it claimed to have hired outside law firms and technology consultants to examine the accident and Cruise’s responses to the regulators. Cruise also offered to share more information, such as” collision reporting as well as regular reports detailing incidents involving stopped AVs,” in a settlement proposal to CPUC.

Both Cruise’s future and the initial intention of the company to quickly begin operations in a number of additional cities are still up in the air. However, Waymo is submitting an application to increase its services in Los Angeles while transporting its vehicles to Phoenix’s highways. Amazon-owned startup Zoox, which drives itself, may introduce a professional service in Las Vegas this year. In 2024, there may be an increasing number of robotaxis on the road for citizens of these cities.

 

Viktor Musil

Victor Musil, pen name for Edouard Py, advocates for inclusive, people-centered city development. His work underscores the importance of ethical considerations and equitable access, shaping the discourse on urban innovation worldwide.

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