For years, automakers have told a specific story about how self-driving cars would arrive in the world. They would be shared and electric, fleets of ride-hail vehicles shuttling passengers like fancy taxis. General Motors and Lyft signed an agreement to pull it off back in 2016; Ford promised its robotaxis would debut by last year; Daimler said it would work with Uber to deploy fleets of Mercedes-Benzes. The logic was financial: Autonomous vehicle technology would be so expensive to develop that carmakers wouldn’t be able to offer it to most drivers at prices they could afford.
This vision carried profound implications: If city dwellers could depend on fleets of shared robotaxis for long trips, they could abandon the personal car altogether. Then the vestiges of car culture—the gas stations, the parking lots, the garages, the street parking—might disappear too. Who knew what sorts of parks, homes, and bike lanes might spring up in their wake?
Now, almost a decade into the self-driving experiment, the future looks more complicated. Progress on AVs has slowed, as both automakers and tech companies have missed self-imposed deadlines for autonomy. That has the companies looking for other ways to make money off self-driving tech. Meanwhile, cameras and sensors like lidar have gotten cheaper. The result: Some players are shifting, subtly, to a new business strategy—selling automated features directly to consumers.
At a (virtual) Wednesday keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said the carmaker would “aim to deliver our first personal autonomous vehicles as soon as the middle of this decade.” The announcement lacked specific details, but Barra stressed that this personal robocar project is separate from the shared fleet of robo-taxis being developed by GM’s Cruise subsidiary. Cruise has said it plans to launch a commercial service in San Francisco this year. “In pursuing multiple paths simultaneously, GM and Cruise are gathering significant technological expertise and experience,” Barra said.
Again, the logic is financial, but the reasoning has changed. “The easiest way to actually make money from autonomy is to offer it as a feature for the consumer market,” says Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst with Gartner. As with many automotive tech developments, he points out, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has led the way; the carmaker now charges $10,000 for its Autopilot driver-assistance feature, and it plans to raise the price to $12,000 later this month. The Tesla technology cannot drive a car by itself, but Musk has repeatedly promised that Teslas equipped with the add-on will one day be able to do so. By contrast, making money on robocabs “is definitely a job for patient automakers or tech companies,” says Ramsey—“one filled with a lot 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 is not the only automaker thinking differently about autonomy. Also on Wednesday, Intel-owned autonomous vehicle developer Mobileye said it would work with the Chinese carmaker Geely to sell an electric vehicle with advanced automated features by 2024. And Volvo this week said it will sell an advanced automated feature called Ride Pilot as a subscription-based add-on to a new electric SUV that will debut later this year. Ride Pilot is enabled by cheaper and lighter lidar from the company Luminar.
Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot, Volvo says, Ride Pilot will be able to navigate highways without driver supervision, which means “you can eat, you can watch a movie, you can read a book” behind the wheel, according to Martin Kristensson, the head of mobility and autonomous driving at Volvo Cars. (He strongly advises drivers to resist the urge to take a nap.) The company plans to roll out the feature first in California, where generally pleasant weather makes it easier for the tech to operate, and where executives hope approval by state regulators will give it a stamp of legitimacy. The Swedish automaker has also signed partnerships with the Chinese AV developer Didi and US companies Aurora and Waymo to provide vehicles for autonomous ride-hailing and trucking fleets.
Personalization—and not sharing—seems the name of the carmaking game. BMW has touted a color-changing paint (albeit limited to a dreary white-black-grey palette) that might allow customers to change the look of their vehicle on a whim. Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent company, announced a new partnership with Amazon, complete with a “SmartCockpit” project to “seamlessly integrate” cars with “customers’ digital lives”—that is, bring your experience with Alexa into the drivers’ seat.
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“We do see a trend in that drivers will spend more time in the car and more time driving, whether it's because the car will drive itself or because maybe you're parked and waiting for your EV to charge,” says Kristensson, the Volvo executive. For that reason, the automaker also announced Wednesday that it would begin to offer the YouTube app on the consoles of some cars.
Some of the biggest names in self-driving tech continue to invest in robotaxis. Lyft and the 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, acquired last year by Amazon, has previewed a vehicle for shared taxi rides. The AV software company Aurora says it will work with Uber and Toyota to run a fleet of AVs. But most of these companies have diversified their moneymaking strategies, too, by also building software for autonomous truck or van fleets.
The changes matter because a world of personal self-driving cars looks very different than a world with fleets of shared ones. If people can sleep or nap or take meetings or answer emails or listen to lectures in their personalized travel pods, they might choose to live even further away from work or school, leading to more urban sprawl. Building sprawling housing, workplaces, and retail, rather than denser housing, workplaces, and retail, could increase emissions and reduce energy efficiency—an unfortunate turn of events as climate change breathes down our collective backs.
And yet, the notion of a personal self-driving car is attractive to many. At least GM thinks so. The automaker’s Cadillac brand Wednesday debuted its newest concept car, called InnerSpace, a luxury two-passenger electric vehicle that, the company said in a press release, “repurposes how passengers use their time while traveling, providing a space for solace and respite.” Which of course, leads to a question: Solace and respite for whom?
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