The state of robotaxis in 2024

Good read.

A driverless Cruise car sits in traffic on Austin Street in downtown Houston on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Photo: Jay R. Jordan/Axios

In 2023, it almost felt as if the promise of robotaxis was soon to be fulfilled. Hailing a robotaxi had briefly become the new trendy thing to do in San Francisco, as simple and everyday as ordering a delivery via app. However, that dream crashed and burned in October, when a serious accident in downtown San Francisco involving a vehicle belonging to Cruise, one of the leading US robotaxi companies, ignited distrust, casting a long shadow over the technology’s future.

Following that and another accident, the state of California suspended Cruise’s operations there indefinitely, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation of the company. Since then, Cruise has pulled all its vehicles from the road and laid off 24% of its workforce.

Despite that, other robotaxi companies are still forging ahead. In half a dozen cities in the US and China, fleets of robotaxis run by companies such as Waymo and Baidu are still serving anyone who would like to try them. Regulators in places like San Francisco, Phoenix, Beijing, and Shanghai now allow these vehicles to drive without human safety operators.

However, other perils loom. Robotaxi companies need to make a return on the vast sums that have been invested into getting them up and running. Until robotaxis become cheaper, they can’t meaningfully compete with conventional taxis and Uber. Yet at the same time, if companies try to increase adoption too fast, they risk following in Cruise’s footsteps. Waymo, another major robotaxi operator, has been going more slowly and cautiously. But no one is immune to accidents.

“If they have an accident, it’s going to be big news, and it will hurt everyone,” says Missy Cummings, a professor and director of the Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center at George Mason University. “That’s the big lesson of this year. The whole industry is on thin ice.”

MIT Technology Review talked to experts about how to understand the challenges facing the robotaxi industry. Here’s how they expect it to change in 2024.

The first challenge given is that right now at least the robotaxis are so much more expensive than regular old human-driven taxis. That’s partly because of the plethora of new technology that these vehicles carry, partly because of the need for remote human operators for those that don’t have emergency drivers, and as one quoted expert put it “These companies are competing with an Uber driver who, in any estimate, makes less than minimum wage, has a midpriced car, and probably maintains it themselves”. I wrote a long time ago when Uber was in the robotaxi space that switching to autonomous vehicles would completely upend their existing business model, as they would now have to own, maintain, store, and insure their entire fleet rather than depend on their drivers to provide it. I’m sure at some point as the technology matures and other costs subside that this model will make more sense than and be more competitive with the existing one. I just don’t know how long that will take and if the companies that are pursuing this will be willing to spend the money and incur the losses it will take to get there. The Cruise experience isn’t a good omen for them. Go read the rest.

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