Over the years, automakers How self-driving cars will come to the world has told a distinctive story. They would be shared and fleets of electric, ride-hail vehicles would ferry passengers like fancy taxis. General Motors and Lyft signed a deal to pull it back in 2016; Ford promised that its roboticaxis would be rolling out by last year; Daimler said it would work with Uber to deploy Mercedes-Benz’s fleet. The rationale was financial: developing autonomous vehicle technology would be so expensive that carmakers would not be able to offer it to most drivers at prices they could afford.
This vision had a profound effect: If city dwellers could depend on a fleet of shared robotaxis for long journeys, they could forgo the personal car altogether. Then the remnants of the car culture—gas stations, parking lots, garages, street parking—may also disappear. Who knew what kind of parks, houses and bike lanes might be built in their wake?
Now, nearly a decade into self-driving experimentation, the future looks more complicated. Progress on AVs has been slow, as both automakers and tech companies have missed self-imposed deadlines for autonomy. This has led companies to look for other ways to make money from self-driving technology. Meanwhile, cameras and sensors like lidar have gotten cheaper. The result: Some players are shifting, subtle, to a new business strategy — selling automated features directly to consumers.
In a (virtual) Wednesday keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said the carmaker “will aim to deliver our first personal autonomous vehicles in the middle of this decade.” The announcement lacked specific details, but Barra stressed that this individual Robocar project is separate from Robo’s shared fleet-the cab being developed by GM’s Cruise subsidiary. Cruise has said it plans to launch a commercial service in San Francisco this year. “By pursuing multiple paths together, GM and Cruise are gathering significant technical expertise and experience,” Barra said.
Again, the logic is financial, but the logic has changed. “The easiest way to make money autonomously is to offer it as a feature to the consumer market,” says Mike Ramsey, automotive analyst at Gartner. As is the case with many automotive technological advances, he explains, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has taken the lead; The carmaker now charges $10,000 for its Autopilot driver-assistance feature, and it price hike plan Up to $12,000 at the end of the month. Tesla technology alone can’t drive a car, but Musk has repeatedly promised that Teslas equipped with the add-on will one day be able to do so. In contrast, making money on Robocab is “certainly a task for patient automakers or tech companies,” Ramsey says—”one fraught with lots of operational challenges and costs.” To wit, Musk promised in 2019 to have 1 million robotaxis on the road by the end of 2020.
GM isn’t the only automaker to think differently about autonomy. Also on Wednesday, Intel-owned autonomous vehicle developer Mobileye said it would work with Chinese carmaker Geely to sell an electric vehicle with advanced automated features by 2024. And Volvo said this week that it will sell an advanced automatic feature as a subscription called Ride Pilot. An add-on based on a new electric SUV that will debut later this year. The ride is enabled by the cheap and lightweight lidar of the pilot company Luminar.
Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot, Volvo says, the Ride Pilot will be able to navigate highways without driver supervision, meaning “you can eat, you can watch a movie, you can read a book” behind the wheel. According to Martin Christensen, the head of mobility and autonomous driving in Volvo Cars. (He strongly advises drivers to resist the urge to take a nap.) The company plans to start first in California, where generally pleasant weather makes the technology easier to operate, and where officials have been asked by state regulators. It is the seal of validity. The Swedish automaker has also signed a partnership with Chinese AV developer Didi and American companies Aurora and Waymo to provide vehicles for autonomous ride-hailing and trucking fleets.
Personalization—and not sharing—seems to be the name of the carmaking game. is bmw postponed A color-changing paint (albeit limited to a monotonous white-black-gray palette) that can allow customers to change the look of their vehicle. Chrysler’s parent company, Stelantis, announced a new partnership with Amazon, complete with a “smartcockpit” project to “natively integrate” cars with the “digital lives of customers” — that is, with Alexa. Take your experience with us in the drivers seat.
“We see a trend that drivers will spend more time in the car and more time driving, whether it is because the car will drive itself or perhaps you are parked and waiting to charge your EV,” Christensen, Volvo says executive. For that reason, the automaker also announced on Wednesday that it will begin offering the YouTube app on the consoles of some cars.
Some of the biggest names in self-driving technology continue to invest in Robotaxis. Lyft and autonomous-vehicle-tech developer Motional say they will launch a fully self-driving ride-hail service in Las Vegas next year. Waymo is operating a fleet of self-driving SUVs in Phoenix and is testing a similar service in San Francisco. Zoox, which was acquired by Amazon last year, previews a vehicle for shared taxi rides. AV software company Aurora says it will work with Uber and Toyota to drive its fleet of AVs. But most of these companies have also diversified their money-making strategies by creating software for autonomous truck or van fleets.
Change matters because the world of individual self-driving cars looks very different from the world with fleets of shared ones. If people can sleep or take a nap or take meetings or answer emails or listen to lectures in their personal travel pods, they may choose to stay even further away from work or school, allowing more urban sprawl, Building spacious housing, workplaces and retail instead of denser housing, workplaces and retail, can increase emissions and reduce energy efficiency—an unfortunate turn of events as climate change breathes our collective back.
And yet, the notion of a personal self-driving car is appealing to many. At least the GM thinks so. The automaker’s Cadillac brand on Wednesday debuted its latest concept car, called the InnerSpace, a luxury two-passenger electric vehicle that, the company said in a press release, “revives that passenger’s time while traveling.” How to use it, provide a place for solace and relief.” Which of course leads to a question: consolation and relief for whom?
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