Weekly Brief: Hyundai and Toyota Spar for Self-Driving Street Credibility

Let’s not overdo it on the Hyundai hype. 

Last week the carmaker announced that it plans to launch a free robo-taxi service in Irvine, California, starting November 4, 2019. The service is called BotRide and is a collaboration with Via, which will provide the ride-hailing platform, and Chinese start-up Pony.ai, which will chip in the autonomous software and sensors. Hyundai will contribute a fleet of all-electric Hyundai Kona SUVs. The service will run on public roads in Irvine, although it will be limited to a small geofenced area around the University of California Irvine and will only go between preset points of interests, including parts of the UCI campus. Anyone can download the BotRide app and request a free ride.

On the one hand, BotRide doesn’t deserve our attention. It’s just another robot-taxi trial, and a small one at that, with a safety driver behind the wheel at all times, plus an additional engineer in the front passenger seat to handle unforeseen complications. That’s a good and necessary precaution, as other first-time robot-taxi trials have proven, but it also means that this trial isn’t cutting-edge in any way. It’s merely an attempt to catch up to leaders like Waymo, which remains years ahead. 

Hyundai’s announcement is more significant, however, when taken in context. BotRide comes on the heels of Hyundai’s recent decision to dump $35 billion into self-driving tech over the coming five years, which in turn came a couple weeks after the carmaker launched another robo-taxi collaboration with Aptiv out of Boston. Taken together, these three items within a single month make it clear that Hyundai wants to get in the game — and to get in right now — from coast to coast in the US and in tandem with the South Korean government in Asia.

It’s still got a long way to go. Longer, than, say GM Cruise, which has backed out of the spotlight since postponing the launch of its first commercial service. Still, GM Cruise has done significantly more testing and piloting than Hyundai, and is on the precipice of launching a full robo-taxi service without driving wheels or pedals on-board, let alone safety drivers and engineers. Just because Hyundai has now launched a couple early pilots with Aptiv and Pony.ai, it doesn’t mean it has hurdled GM and is nipping at Waymo’s heels. 

If you’re looking for a ranking, Hyundai’s recent activity has probably earned it a spot in the second echelon of carmakers, alongside the likes of Nissan and Toyota but behind Ford, GM and Tesla in the first echelon, all of whom trail Waymo. 

Speaking of this second echelon, Toyota was busy last week at the Tokyo Motor Show, where it announced that its all new, all-electric Lexus due out next year will offer full self-driving on highways. This will make the 2020 Lexus similar to the Mercedes-Benz E-Class with the Driver Assistance Package or the Tesla Model S with Enhanced Autopilot. The 2020 Lexus will be Toyota’s first vehicle offering Level 2 autonomy. For more on the flood of electric vehicles at the Tokyo Motor Show, check out our Phil Oakley’s full break down.

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