Automotive Blogs

The Virus of Autonomy

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 24, 2020

Car companies, start-ups, and investors across the globe have embraced and spread the virus of autonomous vehicle technology.  The infection got its start with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which launched the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004 and repeated it in 2005.  The two competitions set off the autonomous vehicle pandemic which is with us to this day.

Engineers that contended for or won the DARPA Grand Challenge spread the “infection” – or one might say obsession – to Google from where it caught on with other start-ups and, eventually, most car companies.  The symptoms include massive investments, the hiring of engineers, software developers, and Ph.D.’s with artificial intelligence backgrounds, the introduction and deployment of test vehicles and bold pronouncements of plans to introduce networked robotaxis within a few years.

But 2019 saw a faltering in these ambitions.  Companies delayed previously announced plans for service launches.  Experts began to acknowledge that the effort to achieve full autonomy was likely to take as much as 10 more years of work.  Lately, we have seen the first bankruptcy due to a failed funding round – Starsky Robotics – and a guilty plea from former Google AV whiz kid Anthony Levandowski on Federal charges of stealing documents.

The arrival of a real viral pandemic has highlighted this newly discovered disconnect between autonomous vehicle ambition and reality.  VentureBeat reported recently that autonomous vehicle operators across the board have suspended their testing and trials – companies including Waymo, Uber, General Motor’s Cruise, Aurora, Argo AI, Pony.ai, Baidu (in California) and Zoox.  (Waymo told VentureBeat it “continues to pick up passengers as part of its Waymo One program in Phoenix, with a small number of completely driverless vehicles.”)

In Geneva, transit operator TPG suspended its XA line autonomous bus (operated by Bestmile and Navya) due to the small size of the cabin and the likelihood of customers being in too close proximity.  The coronavirus (COVID-19) has essentially forced AV developers to wake up to the limitations of the AV proposition.

The suspension of operations takes place in the interest of protecting test drivers, but it highlights the real challenges of transporting humans during a pandemic.  If the AV operators chose to shut down it stands to reason that all taxis and ride hailing operators should also have been asked to suspend their operations.

In essence, with the need for social distancing, placing two human beings in the same car is an untenable proposition plain and simple.  Even supermarket operators around the country and around the world are recognizing the need to install Plexiglas partitions to protect their checkout personnel.

The wind down of AV mobility operators is paralleled in the declining businesses of companies such as Uber, Lyft, Yandex, Gett, Grab and others, but these organizations continue to field networks of driven vehicles – putting drivers and passengers at risk.  All of these organizations note various feeble prophylactic measures such as hand washing and the wearing of face masks, but it is clear that risks remain – especially when some of these drivers are sufficiently reliant on what little business that is left that they may continue to drive even if they are not well.

The latest casualties are peer-to-peer car share operators Getaround and Turo.  Both organizations are dependent on leisure drivers – of which there are precious few – and both are also dependent on the willingness of car owners to share their vehicles with unknown vehicle renters.  Renters, too, may be leery of using a stranger’s car.

Rental car companies such as Avis and Hertz ought to be benefiting, but they are not, as bookings have been halved.  The path forward for these companies may be bringing rental cars to needy drivers or facilitating delivery operations.  Uber has shifted its focus to Uber Eats food deliveries as well as the delivery of tests and needed goods to citizens lacking mobility.

In a world obsessed with autonomous vehicle operation as some form of industry Holy Grail, the arrival of COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of human beings.  When COVID-19 is gone we will once again be looking for the human touch, but we will also be looking for new accomodations.

We will be looking for service providers we can trust.  We will be looking for service providers that provide clean, disinfected, and sanitized transportation.  We will be looking for a human F2F warranty and guarantee of safe, reliable service delivery.  But, mainly, we will be looking for a physical, transparent partition in taxis and ride hailing vehicles.

(Four years ago the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission told taxi drivers they could do away with partitions to better compete with Uber and appear more friendly.  I expect this guidance is no longer relevant.)

COVID-19 won’t be ushering in a new wave of autonomous innovation.  It will usher in a new wave of human accommodation.  I have been chatting lately with Lynn Walford, a freelance journalist focused on the automotive industry, and she has identified and reported on a wide range of chemical and technical accommodations garnering renewed attention.  You can find her reporting here:  https://www.autofutures.tv/2020/02/24/how-to-keep-your-car-virus-free/

When the infections have declined and the fatalities have abated we will enter a world where the onset of the robots has been set back a few more years – while vehicle production and sales will have been setback by a month or two.  Fewer new cars and concerns about sharing cars with a driver will re-invigorate interest in owning cars.  Fewer new cars will also stimulate the value of used cars.

Stir in gasoline prices as low as 99¢ (thank you, Saudi Arabia) and you have the ingredients for an enthusiastic rediscovery of driving.  Given the fact that we won’t want to look at the stock market for a while and we’ll be tired of listening to politicians, scientists, and journalists – it’s going to be a great time to get away. 

There is no cure for the virus of autonomous vehicle development.  As an industry we will continue to pursue this dream.  In the meantime, we will have a new appreciation for driving ourselves.

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