Not too long ago, the idea of a car as a fully autonomous vehicle was reserved only for the movies. Think of all the James Bond and other futuristic films. The futuristic technology from Science fiction has arrived. The future has arrived.
Self-driving cars are a reality, albeit a work in progress, but in some places, they’re on the roads in the form of robotaxis for e-hailing platforms. So, who manufactures these technological wonders called robotaxis and which are the top robotaxi companies?
Since NuTonomy’s launch of a robotaxi service in Singapore in 2016, several companies have started testing and developing autonomous vehicles for public transport. In the USA, Cruise is the leader of the pack. In addition, Baidu and Pony.ai recently received permits to operate on open roads in Beijing.
Most people don’t yet have the opportunity to hail a robotaxi daily, as there are only a handful of fully operational companies with relatively small fleets. But the major players are investing billions in developing the technology to grow the industry to a point where it is accessible to the general public.
Robotaxis Companies and the future of The Taxi services
While the robotaxi industry is currently still in its infancy, market data highlights that the global AV (autonomous vehicle) is expected to hit US$327b by 2030, according to Trend Investing. However, Statista has forecast a faster adoption to reach US$396b by 2025.
The AV industry can potentially fracture the taxi and fleet transport sectors. However, numerous obstacles must be overcome before this becomes a reality. Still, the robotaxi industry is growing.
Around the globe, companies are at different stages of launching fully autonomous robotaxi services. China and the United States are ahead of most countries, with a few ride-hailing services already permitted to operate without a backup driver behind the wheel. Many companies are still running pilot projects where humans still have to be upfront, and they do not charge for the rides.
Who Are The Key Players In The Robotaxi Industry?
With the future of the taxi and transport industry transitioning quickly towards the use of Electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles, any auto manufacturing company worth its salt has to join the race. The key players in this sector are:
- MAN SE
- Nisson Motor Co., Ltd
- Tesla, Inc.
- Toyota Motor Corporation
- Daimler AG
- Volkswagen AG
- Volvo Group
- FCA Italy S.p.A
- Ford Motor Company
- General Motors
Levels Of Automation In Autonomous Vehicle Development
The AV industry categorizes vehicles according to their levels of automation. The key players in the industry are those who are ahead of the pack in their capacity for autonomy. The industry classifies autonomous vehicles in levels from 0 – 5. But what does this mean?
Level 0 refers to a vehicle with no autonomous features or capabilities. Few modern cars fall into this category today.
Level 1 is a slightly more intelligent vehicle with features like adaptive cruise control (ACC), which uses sensors like radar, cameras, or lasers as a safety mechanism. However, the car can only perform one autonomous action at a time.
Level 2 vehicles permit drivers to release the steering wheel with the capability of turning and accelerating without human assistance. These features are typical in some modern cars. However, they still require a driver to observe the road situation and take back control when necessary.
Level 3 cars would not require drivers to watch the roads, but they would still need to be in the driver’s seat to take control in an emergency. Currently, no level 3 vehicles are available to the public.
Level 4 vehicles have almost all the capabilities of a human driver. They can stick to speed limits and respond to traffic light changes but are also unavailable for public purchase.
Level 5 cars will be the AV industry’s pinnacle and require no human contribution while driving. Steering wheels and pedals might even disappear from the car because they would be useless. Presently, there are no level 5 vehicles in production.
Robotaxi Companies That Made Notable Progress
Less than a decade ago, the first robotaxi service debuted, and progress has been rapid.
NuTonomy started its autonomous car taxi service in Singapore in August 2016 with a small fleet of six adapted Mitsubishi i-MiEVs and Renault Zoes.
In September 2016, Uber began allowing a select group of Pittsburgh users to hail one of their fourteen robotaxis. But they always had two Uber engineers in the front of the vehicles. Even this turned out to be an insufficient safety measure. In March 2017, a car failing to yield hit an Uber AV, flipping it onto its side.
Later that year, the company scaled down to one test driver. Then, in March 2018, a woman was killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle while crossing the road in Tempe, Arizona. The engineer had been watching videos. As a result, Uber sold its AV division to Aurora Innovation in 2021, simultaneously investing in it.
April 2017 saw Waymo begin large-scale testing in a geo-fenced area of Phoenix, Arizona, with a driver overseeing each car. In November of that year, Waymo began testing driverless cars, and the company finally launched its commercial fleet known as Waymo One in November 2019, using its fleet of Chrysler Pacificas.
The GM-backed Cruise Automation began using their beta version of the robotaxi service in San Franciso for their employees in August 2017. In September 2021, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued the American startup the first permit to provide a driverless taxi service in the state. February 2022 saw the company opening its driverless services to the San Francisco public.
Across the, in China, driverless taxi services have also started springing up.
Pony.ai started its pilot program in April 2019, covering 19 sq mi in Guangzhou. Their employees and invited affiliates used the vehicles from pre-determined pickup spots. The company began a three-month trial program in Irvine, California, in November 2019.
In April 2022, the Chinese government gave the first permits to Pony.ai and the internet company Baidu to offer self-driving taxi services to the public in Beijing. However, the permit still requires a human safety officer in the front passenger seat.
Neither company would charge fares for the rides, although both companies run commercial robotaxi services with drivers in Yizhuang, Beijing. Baidu has approximately 100 Apollo Go vehicles. Ten of those are allowed to be driverless.
Pony.ai would begin with four driverless vehicles.
Another company that started up in China was Alibaba-backed AutoX. It launched its non-public robotaxi trial in December 2020 in Shenzhen. In January 2021, the public was allowed to use the service.
What Is The Verdict On A Driverless Trip?
CBS News compared Baidu’s driverless service in Beijing to a trip on the same route with a traditional vehicle and driver. The robotaxi trip was smooth but took longer than the conventional taxi service.
Screens positioned on the seats depict how the robotaxi scans and surveys the area around the car for vehicles, people, and other objects that could be in its way.
Which Company Will Win The Robotaxi Race?
Some companies already have driverless taxi fleets in operation; some still have vehicles in pilot programs. However, the innovation and technology that has brought us autonomous cars and the possibility of the widespread availability of robotaxi services have yet to reach their peak.
So, many companies are still in the race, and manufacturers, software, and hardware companies are constantly updating and improving their technology to be the leader of the pack. Who might win?
Tesla’s Progress In Robotaxi Technology
Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, had planned for the company to roll out a 1 million vehicle self-driving taxi service by the year-end of 2020. Although the Autopilot system is constantly updated, the Tesla vehicles are rated as level 2 in the AV classification system. It still requires driver assistance.
Musk had originally planned to launch a Fully Self-Driving (FSD) vehicle fleet by December 2022. But, besides the regular technological challenges, the company also faces a campaign against their FSDs regarding safety issues by the Dawn Project.
In 2021, Tesla produced 930 000 electric vehicles, and the number of robotaxis in the world is not anywhere near that amount. Suppose Tesla advances their technology so that its cars can operate without drivers. In that case, it could win the robotaxi race. But they are still far from that point. And other companies already have commercial fleets on the road.
Mobileye Could Power The Robotaxi Industry
In 2017 Intel acquired the chipmaker company, Mobileye, which makes software and hardware for smart cars. Mobileye has partnered with more than two dozen vehicle manufacturers, and its driver-assist features have already been installed in 60 million cars worldwide. By partnering with so many car manufacturers, it is developing a reputation as the brand to have for autonomous vehicles.
Ford Motor Company Is In The Running for self-driving taxis
Ford has a significant stake in Argo AI, and they have launched a robotaxi service with Lyft. The fleet mainly consists of Ford Escape hybrids and uses Argo’s Level 4 autonomous driving software and hardware stack.
GM’s Cruise Is Already Operating A Fleet
GM has a contract to build a robotaxis for Cruise, which has earned the first permit to carry customers in autonomous cars without drivers.
Waymo Led The Race At The Start
Waymo has been the technology leader since starting the Google AV program. However, while it announced its intention to purchase up to 82000 cars for its robotaxi fleet, the company still only has hundreds of vehicles. The slow rollout of a fleet large enough to compete in the industry could keep Waymo from winning the race.
Chinese Companies That Could Be Robotaxi Leaders
Leading Chinese companies in the AV sector include Pony.ai, Budai, WeRide, Didi Chuxing, and AutoX. AutoX was the first company to do a trial with fully autonomous vehicles on public roads in China. However, it was a technology test, not a launch of a robotaxi service.
Pony.ai and Baidu are already on the roads with permits for their robotaxi services, so they are fully in the running as industry leaders.
Other Companies Making Progress In The Robotaxi Industry
The automotive industry is transitioning, and most vehicle production companies can now be identified as automotive vehicle hardware and software companies. These companies have set their sights on the massive potential in the autonomous driving technology market. They are actively pursuing their share of the AV pie. Some of these not previously mentioned are:
- Optimus Ride
- Unity Technologies
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Most auto manufacturers have knuckled down to get in on the AV market. They have partnered with the world’s best technology companies to take us into the future with vehicles that drive themselves and us to and from our destinations.
Who will be the race winner to produce the most lucrative and popular self-driving vehicles to provide taxi services to the masses? Innovation is not always linear, and while some companies may be ahead of the robotaxi pack now, technological challenges, financial crashes, and other issues could force them to fall back. So, watch this space to track the leader in the robotaxi race.
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