Weekly Brief: Toyota Behind Repurposing Robo-Taxis as Driverless Delivery Fleet

Self-driving start-up backed by Toyota has transformed its robo-taxi fleet into a driverless grocery delivery service last week.

The move came in response to the ongoing lockdown in California and the heightened need for essential goods amid the Coronavirus pandemic. The start-up, Pony.ai, is partnering with e-commerce site Yamibuy on the initiative and its fleet consists of 10 self-driving electric Hyundai Konas.

The outfit had been participating in a robo-taxi pilot in the city of Irvine, California, since November 2019 but was forced to ground its fleet in March owing to the state’s lockdown orders. Now the vehicles will run delivery trips from Yamibuy’s distribution center to residences, condos and apartment complexes in Irvine. There will be a PonyPilot safety driver on-board. Customers can choose to have the safety driver drop the delivery at their front doors or they can come to the vehicle and remove their order from the trunk themselves, thereby achieving a contact-free delivery.

Pony.ai expects its fleet to complete about 100 deliveries a day and says that its delivery pilot will run through midsummer. Don’t be surprised if other self-driving fleets launch similar pilots before then. The need for goods is high, as is the importance of limiting contact with others while sheltering-in-place.

More importantly, there’s a growing awareness in the self-driving car industry that the Coronavirus pandemic could act as an accelerator for the adoption of autonomous vehicles if companies play their cards right. With whole economic, political and social systems shut down around the world right now, there could be an opportunity to define a new and better normal in the months ahead. Self-driving delivery vehicles that can drop off groceries and food at your door could be a part of that.

Another self-driving company, Nuro, has already applied for and received a permit from the California DMV to test low-speed delivery vehicles that don’t have safety drivers on-board. It hasn’t partnered with any businesses yet but that will probably come soon. Waymo has the same permit but hasn’t mentioned anything yet about repurposing its fleet. If the lockdown continues, and Waymo continues to lose the ability to collect data from its existing pilots and services, that transition is also likely. The same goes for General Motor’s Cruise in the San Francisco Bay Area.

There’s a flip side to all of this. In the midst of a recession, or even a depression, car companies could be less willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on moon shots whose long-term revenue propositions are murky at best. Venture capitalists will be equally wary. That’s why Coronavirus could be a catalyst or it could be a momentum killer.

In other news last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a recall of 11,870 Hyundai vehicles in the US. The problem is a glitch in Hyundai’s new Remote Smart Parking Assistant feature. NHTSA says the Hyundai vehicles in question can’t override the software and stop themselves if the smart parking feature happens to malfunction. Thankfully, the recall is straight-forward. Owners of the Hyundai 2020 Sonata and the Hyundai Nexo cross-over simply have to bring their vehicles to dealerships, whose service professionals can reprogram the software. The recall is scheduled to begin June 4, assuming Hyundai dealerships have reopened by then.

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