Self-Driving Vehicles are already on the roads
It has been said that “Self-driving cars were supposed to be here already” and pessimists have given up hope. But contrary to popular belief, there’s already plenty of self-driving vehicles on the roads. So, this article focuses on the use cases that are already happening right now. I’ve also written about The Most Interesting Self-Driving Car Companies and gathered a list of All Major Self-Driving Car Companies.
A growing consensus holds that driver-free vehicles will begin to trickle, not flood, into the market and below are examples of how the tide is turning.
- Robo Taxis
- Robo Trucks
- Robo Farming vehicles
- Robo Mining vehicles
- Shuttle Services
- Campus Runarounds
- Last-mile Logistics
- Automated Valet Parking
In fact, I think this this is actually a perfect example of “inflated expectations” and “trough of disillusionment” — people got way too excited two years ago and no longer have the patience to wait. However, the wait will be worth it because eventually the shared, automated, connected, electric vehicles will provide billions of people safer, cleaner, and more convenient mobility.
1) Robo Taxis
Self-driving robo-taxis are ushering in a new age of driverless cars. The level four automated vehicles can drive independently on routes within certain neighborhoods, under the supervision of a human driver. There are many others (Tesla, Intel/MobilEye, Didi Chuxing…) developing self-driving taxis, but here are the ones active on the roads right now:
Aptiv & Lyft: Collectively the companies run the largest open-to-the-public robo taxi service (has a human safety driver behind the wheel). So far Aptiv’s self-driving vehicles have given 100,000 paid rides via the Lyft app in Las Vegas.
Baidu: In September 2019 Baidu launched Apollo Robotaxi trial in Changsha, Hunan province, China. The first batch of 45 self-driving taxis offer passenger rides in a pilot zone covering a total area of 70km² and 135km-long open roads — making it the largest and the most extensive coverage of complex road conditions and the most advanced vehicle-infrastructure cooperative systems in the world to date.
Cruise: GM’s and Honda’s much awaited self-driving electric-powered ride-sharing vehicle Origin was launched in 2020, but as yet there’s no date when this app-hailing robo-taxi will be available to ride in.
Waymo: Google’s self-driving car company, Waymo, has been testing a ride-hailing service in select cities with specially made Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid SUVs. Its ride-hailing service, Waymo One, launched in 2018 to a limited beta-testing group but now has 1,500 monthly active users. In December 2019 Waymo announced that its completely driverless taxis are on the way to Phoenix.
Self-Driving Cars might be the only way to profitability for The Most Interesting Players in the Ride-Hailing Market.
2) Robo Trucks
Several companies are leading the way in developing level four automation for autonomous trucks. Most of this development is focused on long-haul/inter-state haulage. Many autonomous start-ups increasingly view trucking as their fastest path to market.
Einride is a Swedish startup developing pods designed to haul freight. It raised $25M in Series A funding, which will be used for expansion in the USA. Eindride launched a commercial pilot with Coca Cola in December 2019 and with Lidl in April 2020.
Ike raised $52M in February 2019. They are not yet testing vehicles on roads, instead concentrating on building a holistic autonomous system that will underpin truck manufacturing, haulage and logistics. Ike’s approach is to partner with the existing industry — the Tier 1s, OEMs, fleets, and shippers.
Torc Robotics sold a majority stake in the company to Daimler Trucks the world’s largest truck manufacturer in March 2019. The company was founded in 2005 and one of the few teams to cross the finish line in the famous DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007. They are now developing level 4 self-driving trucks as well as autonomous shuttles with Transdev.
TuSimple: The US-based privately-owned global self-driving trucking company was founded in 2015 and has raised $298M funding. It is aiming to do its first driver-out demonstration runs on public highways in 2021. Its new autonomous trucks should see forward for over half a mile, farther than any other autonomous vehicle, and can run day and night, even in the rain.
Volvo Vera: Volvo Trucks has unveiled Vera, an all-electric, self-driving tractor system, developed to complement its existing truck offering. It’s been designed to help move goods between logistic hubs and is being used in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Some have already given up:
3) Robo Farming vehicles
The future of agriculture is here, as driverless tractors have been around for years. Yet new innovation in this sector is taking autonomous technology to new heights. Here’s how:
Taranis: The Israeli-start up is an innovator in this space. It has an intelligent agricultural management platform that assists in the early identification of major diseases and crop pests, providing the most accurate decision making in preventive control.
4) Robo Mining vehicles
The mining sector have been pioneers in the use of autonomous vehicles. Driverless vehicles have been working in real mines for more than 20 years.
Caterpillar: Autonomous and remote-controlled mining equipment is reportedly being lined to help mine water, oxygen rich rocks and moon dust when NASA returns to the moon in 2024.
Sandvik: Its automated loaders and trucks have been working in real mines for over 20 years, with more than 2 million operating hours under its belt. It has recently launched a fully automated loader bucket, which can complete the whole production cycle from loading, hauling and dumping.
Volvo: Launched the world’s first self-driving truck in an underground mine in 2018. In the same year it began transporting limestone along three miles of road and tunnels from the mine to a nearby port using self-driving trucks for a Norwegian mine Brønnøy Kalk.
5) Shuttle Services
Self-driving shuttle services are already working in some busy downtown cities in the likes of Detroit, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio. However, the routes are extremely limited and many have a driver on board to supervise.
EasyMile: headquartered in France with offices all around the globe launched the self-driving electric bus EZ10 already in 2014. It has raised a total of €22M funding from, for example, Continental. Thanks to federal funding the company launched “the U.S.’s first daily, public residential autonomous shuttle” in Columbus, Ohio in February 2020.
Gacha: Japanese brand Muji and Finnish autonomous driving company Sensible 4 launched the self-driving Gacha bus in Helsinki in 2019 which can operate in all weather conditions. In February 2020 Sensible 4 raised $7M to further develop its autonomous driving system for harsh weather conditions.
May Mobility: Raised $50M funding in a round led by Toyota. The company currently runs 25 low-speed shuttles between three US cities with a plan to build up to 25 per city (ie 75 all together). The partnership with Toyota will most likely pair May Mobility’s self-driving vehicle technology with the Toyota’s concept vehicle, the e-Palette.
Navya is a French start-up founded in 2014. It launched the first electric autonomous on U.S. public roads in Las Vegas already in 2017. It has raised over $60M funding in 2016–2018.
Optimus Ride: An MIT spin off raised $50M funding in in the end of 2019 and aims to be fully driverless still in 2020. Optimus Ride consists of a half-dozen six-seater electric vehicles operating within a 300-acre walled-off industrial space called the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It travels 1.1 miles from the entrance of the Navy Yar to the New York City ferry dock on the East River and operates on a continuous loop between 7am and 10:30pm on weekdays. Like many other self-driving car companies it pivoted to a new role during covid-19 and started to deliver meals and medical personnel.
6) Campus Runarounds
Companies are deploying self-driving vehicles in areas that have been comprehensively mapped or geo-fenced, for example retirement communities or college campuses.
Optimus Ride: Has deployed its autonomous transportation systems in the Seaport area of Boston (see also above). Optimus team is currently focused on deploying its vehicles in communities with residential and commercial buildings, retirement communities, corporate and university campuses, airports, resorts, and smart cities.
Voyage: A Silicon Valley self-driving vehicle start-up focuses on using the tech to provide transportation at retirement communities. It has started to expand its robotic fleet and engineering team with the $51M funding raised in September 2019. Large-scale retirement communities are relatively controlled environments, typically with lower posted speeds and many residents who are no longer able to drive themselves, making Voyage’s on-demand automated vans most likely a good fit.
7) Last-mile Logistics
Fleets of robots will begin hitting the streets in the months ahead, delivering everything from packages, fast food, and groceries to paying customers. In fact, Waymo’s CEO Krafcik said in May 2020 that due to covid-19 delivering goods is now a bigger market than people.
Amazon: Has begun field testing ‘Scout’ delivery robot in daylight hours, Monday to Friday, in Snohomish County, Washington, with Prime customers who request same-day, one-day, or two-day delivery. They also launched Amazon Prime Air Delivery drones already in 2016. In fact, Amazon’s going big in mobility on many fronts like Rivian electric vehicles, Alexa in cars, Aurora Innovations, AWS DeepRacer, and Amazon Robotics.
Gatik: focuses on ‘middle-mile’ logistics meaning they cover the distance between distribution centers and logistics with self-driving box trucks. The route is pretty much fixed, which should make it easier to implement. With $4,5M funding and Walmart as the first customer they have an exciting business plan.
Kiwi Campus: a Columbian startup providing food deliveries with Kiwibot in California. A small company operating with only $3,5M funding, but tells an interesting story about the importance of last-mile logistics.
Marble: This San Francisco start-up deployed its delivery robots on the streets of San Francisco in 2017 and raised $10M funding in 2018. Despite delivering for Yelp Eat24 its efforts were curtailed by stringent regulation. Summer 2019, the robot-delivery company applied for a permit to begin robo-deliveries in the same city again.
Nuro: Became the first company to win approval from U.S. regulators to test its battery-powered driverless delivery vehicles on public streets in February 2020. Its little vans without steering wheels or pedals will deliver groceries, food and other small packages in Houston, Texas. Nuro was founded in 2016 by two Google engineers and raised $940M funding in March 2019.
Pony.ai: Chinese autonomous vehicle start-up jointly based in Silicon Valley has raised $400M funding.It has launched a self-driving delivery service in Irvine, California, in a bid to tap into growing demand for innovative solutions to shipping packages and groceries during the coronavirus lockdown.
Postmates: focusing on ferrying food and other goods has received a permission for robo-deliveries in San Francisco in August 2019. It raised $225M with $2,4bn valuation in September 2019 resulting in total of $903M funding. It filed for an IPO already in February 2019, but had to postpone it and had to lay off employees and is looking for a buyer.
Starship Technologies: Began deploying its autonomous six-wheeled delivery robots on four U.S. university campuses in 2019. The robots can carry 20 pounds of cargo, and have a delivery radius of three to four miles, travelling at a max speed of 4 mph. In August 2019 it raised $40M to expand to food deliveries in college campuses.
8) Automated Valet Parking
Automated Valet Parking enables cars to be parked automatically with no monitoring human behind the wheel. In fact, a new ISO standard ISO/WD 23374–2 Intelligent transport systems — Automated valet parking systems (AVPS) is currently in progress.
Unikie: The Finnish software development company (and my current employer) has launched an Automated Factory Parking service that enables a vehicle to drive and park without any human interaction. It’s been designed to reduce costs of car logistics on factory premises. The solution uses a combination of infrastructure-based sensors, cameras, machine vision, and edge computing to control the vehicle. As a result, it can control vehicles without autonomous driving functionality as if they had level four autonomous capabilities.
Whilst widely available self-driving cars maybe stuck in first gear, the self-driving vehicle sector as a whole is not. Rapid innovation continues to see new players enter the market with commercially viable solutions. All of which will pave the way for driverless cars in the future.
Yet, as with original cars, that had to overcome the lack of road network or access to gasoline, self-driving varieties have their own major constraints to contend with. Today’s technology innovators are puzzling over how to bind a system of interconnecting technology together along with challenging antiquated legislation/regulation. Not to forget covid-19 pandemia, which caused major testing challenges for the developers.
Tesla’s Elon Musk may be the most bullish when it comes to his predictions saying fully operational driverless cars will be on our roads imminently. But it’s likely we’re decades away from that reality. Even then, Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik says, “autonomy will always have its constraints”. Yet there are still optimists, such as professor Enrique Dans, who says that the reality has already exceeded our expectations, or the founder of Oxbotica, Paul Newman, who says we will have full level five autonomy in vehicles by 2050. Only time will tell.
As with all transformation, adoption of new technology will come in parallel to societal developments. For tech to change, society has to change too — which means new social structures, business models, knowledge, skills, culture of use, and way of life.
In the end, tech will provide the ways, society the means.
- Gartner: “Emerging Technology Hype Cycle 2019”, August 6th, 2019
- Wired: “Are We There Yet? A Reality Check on Self-Driving Cars”, April 22nd, 2019
- The rest of the references are included as links in the text above.