Weekly Brief: Demise of Uber trucks shows how volatile driverless industry can be

Uber’s self-driving program was undone by a single pedestrian fatality and who says Waymo won’t be next? Andrew Tolve reports.

The AV industry is balanced on a knife edge. What may appear as an ineluctable shift toward autonomy, boosted by favorable policies from lawmakers and friendly articles by journalists, can just as quickly turn to backlash, fear and failure. A stark reminder came last week when Uber announced continued fallout from the pedestrian death that one of its driverless cars caused in Tempe, Arizona, in March. The latest axe to drop: the company has shuttered its autonomous truck division to focus on getting robo-taxis right.

To be fair, Uber also announced last week that its robo-taxis are now back on public streets in Pittsburgh and that it plans to ramp up trials again over the coming months, as my colleague Stephen Lawson reported. Also Uber competitors have shown no signs of letting up with Waymo still planning to roll out a fully commercialized service this year. Just last week it announced it will soon offer driverless rides to and from public transportation in Phoenix, to solve first- and last-mile transit connections, as our Nathan Eddy reported. Elsewhere last week we saw the Texas town of Frisco roll out self-driving vans from Drive.ai and the city of Sacramento mint a partnership with Phantom Auto that will bring Level 5 autonomous vehicles to the streets of California’s capital.

Full steam ahead, right?

However, what if it’s a Waymo AV that causes a fatal accident next? Waymo satisfied politicians and seemingly the public when it promised that its technology would never make the mistake that Uber’s did in Tempe. If that promise is proven false, you can bet that its 2018 rollout will be delayed. General Motor Cruise’s planned 2019 rollout would likely follow suit and, just like that, all the momentum behind the AV revolution could disappear like a smoke screen. So, what seems imminent today could start to feel like a long, hard, and potentially risky, slog instead for investors, start-ups, carmakers and suppliers alike.

It was a busy week elsewhere in the mobility space, especially on the trucking front. Uber self-driving trucks may be finished but the rest of the trucking industry continues to wrestle with what the future of long haul will look like. Spanish automaker SEAT has an idea for an alternative to truck platooning: a duo trailer that physically attaches one trailer to the next to cut down on gas, logistics and the overall number of trucks on the road. Toyota advanced from Alpha to Beta in its California-based experiment to create one of the world’s first zero emissions heavy duty trucks. The secret? Fuel cell technology, as our editor Paul Myles explores. At the same time, Swedish start-up Einride unveiled an autonomous, all-electric logging truck called the T-Log. It now seems increasingly likely that alternative energy vehicles could go dormant in the consumer segment while they thrive in the trucking industry. Time will tell.
The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry sources.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *