Weekly Brief: A Little Smooth Tarmac on AV’s Bumpy Road

Four years after launching its robo-taxi service on the outskirts of Phoenix, Waymo is finally ready to head downtown.

The start-up announced last week that Waymo One has expanded from a side show in the East Valley to the city center of Phoenix, with no rider restrictions or safety engineers on board. Unlike Cruise in San Francisco, which can only offer rides to the general public in the middle of the night, Waymo One will operate around the clock, from rush hour to the graveyard shift, charging members of the general public a full fare for autonomous rides throughout Phoenix’s downtown neighborhood.

This is the closest America has come to realizing its robo-taxi future and none too soon either. With the recent collapse of Argo AI, combined with layoffs and contraction across the AV industry, startups and investors alike are eager to see tangible signs that commercialization is possible, perhaps even imminent. Paul Myles has more details on the Phoenix rollout.

Waymo offered another ray of sunshine last week when the California Department of Motor Vehicles upgraded Waymo’s deployment permit in San Francisco. Waymo can now charge for food and grocery deliveries in fully autonomous vehicles without safety drivers present. That means that Waymo will also be able to charge members of the general public for rides in its San Francisco robo-taxi fleet once it receives one more permit from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which it can apply for come mid-December.

Waymo operating two robo-taxi services in two major US cities come early 2023, with Los Angeles likely to follow, creates a different narrative around self-driving cars than the prevailing storyline today, which tends to linger on questions like will robo-taxis ever go mainstream and are self-driving cars Silicon Valley‘s biggest waste of money of all time? Both of these questions are still valid (a couple Waymo announcements doesn’t change that) but some positive momentum certainly won’t hurt.

In other news, it’s been a tumultuous two weeks for self-driving truck start-up TuSimple. The trouble started when TuSimple’s board of directors caught wind that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with its buddies at the Securities and Exchange Commission, was investigating TuSimple’s chief executive Xiaodi Hou. Hou is the Steve Jobs of TuSimple – cofounder and CEO, board chairman and chief technology officer. Simply put, without Hou TuSimple would not exist nor would it have risen to its place of prominence in the autonomous trucking market. Yet, now it seemed that Hou had an illicit relationship with Chinese hydrogen truck start-up Hydron, which was founded by TuSimple’s other confounder Mo Chen last year and was sharing top secret information at the expense of TuSimple’s shareholders. Not a good look.

The board acted swiftly and removed Hou from his many posts. Hou swore his innocence and last week struck back. He and Mo Chen together represent a super majority of TuSimple’s shareholders and voted to oust every independent member of the board. This left only Hou as chairman. He named Mo Chen and former CEO Cheng Lu as new board members. Those board members then voted to fire interim CEO Ersin Yumer and reinstate Lu as CEO, a post he left in March 2022 when Hou took over. This left TuSimple devoid of independent directors, a requirement to be listed on the Nasdaq. Hou, Lu and Mo Chen say they plan to nominate new independent directors, presumably underlings who won’t vote to fire any of them, before they get delisted by Nasdaq. TuSimple’s is down more than 50% in the last two weeks.

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