Weekly Brief: This Year Could Underscore Necessity as Mother of Invention

Tesla delivered 500,000 vehicles in 2020, the electric carmaker announced last week.

This caps off a record year that thrust the company into profitability for the first time and, bizarrely, made the automotive minnow the most valuable American carmaker that has ever existed. It wasn’t alone in achieving significant accomplishments last year against the backdrop of the pandemic.

Waymo opened its driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix to all Waymo One riders and opened the door to any member of the general public. Amazon shelled out $1.2Bn for autonomous vehicle start-up Zoox and unveiled its first robo-taxi. General Motors committed $27Bn to electrification by 2025, and GM Cruise began to operate five test vehicles in San Francisco without a safety driver behind the wheel.

2020 was a year unlike any other in modern history. Time seemed to fall into a loophole in which we were trapped in an interminable cycle of hand sanitizing, mask wearing, and social distancing. “For those who have lost track, today is Blursday the fortyteenth of Maprilay,” read the meme that went viral last April.

That was back when the whole automotive industry had been forced to shut down in rapid order. Tens of thousands of factory workers had been furloughed; cars were left unfinished on factory floors, languishing like skeletons in a dystopian Hollywood disaster movie. Self-driving car operators, like Waymo, had to suspend their services while micro-mobility start-up Lime watched its valuation drop 79% in the matter of months. Some wondered if the pandemic would delay or doom parts of the mobility revolution altogether.

Fast forward six months and a different reality has come to pass. Automakers have rehired the vast majority of their employees and implemented new practices to get production rolling back to pre-Covid-19 levels. Lime acquired JUMP from Uber and is now operating cash-flow positive. Self-driving car pilots and services are back in operation. New players like Amazon have made staggering investments in autonomy. Last week a story broke in Reuters that Apple, whose self-driving car division, Project Titan, has been operating in stealth mode since 2014, has set a launch date of 2024 for its self-driving vehicle (probably dubbed the iCar), which will target everyday consumers.

In retrospect, 2020 may go down as more of a boon for the mobility revolution than a speed bump. After all, when everything is up in the air and uncertain, when all of our methods and routines have been thrown into flux, it creates the opportunity for radical change and transformation of systems in a way that otherwise would not have been possible. The Bubonic Plague was a tragedy of colossal proportions but it also set the table for the Italian Renaissance. The global disruption of the pandemic may be just the spark that driverless vehicles were waiting for.

There is demand today for contact-free transportation and deliveries in a way that, arguably, there never would have been had the pandemic not come along. There’s a desire among mayors in cities around the world to create more pedestrian space, so that social distancing and outdoor dining is easier to achieve. There’s also more consumer demand to avoid mass transportation like subways and buses.

How all of these factors shake out is hard to say. To sit here at the outset of a new year and try to foretell the future would be foolish. Prognostication is a risky business at any time, let alone in the midst of a pandemic that has highlighted just how unpredictable tomorrow can be. However, as a fan of the mobility revolution and someone who is desperate for something to look forward to, I’d like to think the future is bright.

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