Under pressure from souring economic conditions, some investors and corporations are throttling back their rush to build fully self-driving automobiles and focusing instead on partially autonomous vehicles with “driver-assist” features to promote safety for human drivers, an industry expert says.
The latest example came last week when Ford and Volkswagen shut down Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based startup they had jointly founded—and richly funded—to create fully autonomous commercial cars. That news was closely followed by the unveiling of lawsuits against aspiring autonomous vehicle (AV) automakers Tesla (accused of overhyping its “autopilot” system in passenger vehicles) and TuSimple (for allegedly transferring technology to a Chinese company). TuSimple promptly released its CEO, Xiaodi Hou, but proclaimed it will continue to pursue work related to reservations for autonomous trucks from major freight transportation providers including Penske, Schneider, and U.S. Xpress.
Those stumbles come as both small startups and large automakers have been pouring resources into AV technology since about 2014, says Tony Wayda, principal at JBF Consulting, a Connecticut-based logistics consulting and systems integration firm. That race to bring new products to market has recently slowed to a more strategic rollout of the components that have proven successful so far, as investors seek to generate reliable revenue instead of funding speculative research and development.
According to Wayda, the change in approach can be measured by the yardstick of the six levels of autonomous driving defined by the Pennsylvania-based engineering standards group SAE International. Those ranks span from Level 0 (No Driving Automation) through Level 1 (Driver Assistance), Level 2 (Partial Driving Automation), Level 3 (Conditional Driving Automation), Level 4 (High Driving Automation), and Level 5 (Full Driving Automation).
“Given the current economic downturn, recession fears and tightening of [private equity] and [venture capital] dollars, companies are reevaluating their position on Level 4 and Level 5. While we believe Level 4 is attainable it is still several years away from becoming mainstream,” Wayda said in an email. “For this reason, we are seeing automakers starting to give less focus on Level 4 & 5 AD and focusing on automation that can drive safety, which in turn can drive revenue. Level 2 and Level 3 are attainable in the near future and in some cases are already implemented, such as lane assist and auto braking.”
These events appear to have paused the development of full AV technology for commercial passenger cars, but related efforts continue in the freight trucking sector. Just this week, San Francisco-based Embark Trucks said it had expanded its coverage map of transfer points for trucks equipped with its autonomous technology. The company continues to run pilot tests in which its vehicles haul loads over highway routes before handing them off to human drivers for last-mile delivery. Other AV technology providers such as Torc Robotics, Volvo Autonomous Solutions, Kodiak Robotics, Waymo Via, and Gatik are following similar patterns.
Despite that progress, the host of aspiring AV truck providers may likewise slow their advance and begin to follow a more deliberate path toward the twin goals of full commercialization and full autonomy, Wayda said.
“The more fundamental problems with [AVs] are the safety concerns and public perception,” Wayda said. “While we believe we will continue to see automakers incorporate more Level 2 and Level 3 capabilities into their systems, moving into Level 4 will take a much larger effort. Lawmakers and government agencies will need to work closely with the [AV] tech companies and automakers to gain public confidence and trust. We believe this will likely come in phases.”
For example, with sufficient planning, autonomous trucks could begin to ply their highway miles along dedicated lanes on certain U.S. interstates, where they could drive down paths that are cordoned off with barriers, much like express lanes in areas of high traffic congestion, he said.