Weekly Brief: Uber’s Very Tiny Toe Back in Robo-Taxi Market

Uber once had grand designs to pioneer the robo-taxi industry. Instead, it limped into the market last week with a modest, daytime-only service in Las Vegas.

Uber’s first robo-taxi fleet includes an undisclosed number of Hyundai electric Ioniq 5 vehicles outfitted with Motional’s autonomous technology. The robo-taxis will be available to the general public for free trips exclusively on the Las Vegas Strip on UberX and Uber Comfort Electric. Safety operators will be behind the wheel at all times.

If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound all that impressive for the largest ride-hailing company in the world, you’re right. It’s not. Waymo is way ahead of Uber in Phoenix, where its Waymo One service has been commercially active since 2019. Waymo launched robo-taxis with safety operators in its second market, San Francisco, earlier this year. Cruise recently commercialized its robo-taxi service in San Francisco. Uber’s main competitor Lyft has operated a Motional robo-taxi service in Las Vegas since 2018. Via Rideshare, a minnow compared to Uber, launched an on-demand robo-taxi service with Motional in Las Vegas back in February 2022.

In Uber’s defense, it had little alternative but to step back and wait for other companies to take the lead after its hard-charging pursuit of in-house autonomous technology turned into a cautionary tale for the AV industry. The lessons learned: don’t steal your technology from Waymo and get sued for cyber theft and then don’t push your technology haphazardly into the field before it’s ready, leading to a fatal accident with a pedestrian in 2018 — to this day the biggest black eye in AV history. Uber sold off its Advanced Technologies Group in 2020 to Aurora and has been keeping a low profile since. A modest launch in Las Vegas in partnership with an experienced AV supplier is all the risk that Uber can afford to take.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the Las Vegas launch is part of a more ambitious, 10-year plan to roll out robo-taxis across the US. Uber’s second planned market after Las Vegas is Los Angeles, most likely next year if it can get its permits in order with the state of California. If all goes smoothly there, other major US cities will follow.

In other news, it was an up-and-down week for the autonomous trucking industry, which saw Swedish start-up Einride raise $500M in funding to boost its expansion into new markets across Europe and the US. Einride has some of the most advanced driverless tech on the market for the trucking sector and has successfully piloted cab-less pods in partnership with Coca-Cola in Sweden. Owing to regulatory challenges, Einride is also developing more traditional, all-electric tractor trailers. The investment is meant to help launch these electric trucks in new markets in Germany, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Norway. If it keeps growing, Einride could prove to be one of the biggest competitors for the new Tesla Semi.

On the flip side of the coin, autonomous trucking company TuSimple abandoned its partnership with truck manufacturer Navistar and for the time being shelved its plans to bring an autonomous big rig to market. It’s been a tumultuous year for TuSimple, complete with US federal investigations and the ouster of its CEO Cheng Lu, which led to an internal investigation and another CEO ouster as Lu came back into power last month. It was Lu who scrapped the Navistar plan, seemingly with the goal of getting his company back on track internally before it partners with outside companies. TuSimple and Navistar left the door open for a possible reunion down the road. Paul Myles has more details.

Finally, rumors are flying again about the Apple Car, or iCar, or whatever it will be called if it ever comes to fruition. Bloomberg reported last week according to anonymous sources inside Apple’s Project Titan that the launch date for the all-electric vehicle has been pushed back from 2025 to 2026. More importantly, Apple has changed its design from a fully autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel and pedals to a more traditional car that will offer Level 4 autonomous driving on highways but will require manual driving in all other environments. The car is still in pre-prototype phase, meaning that it very well may be a figment of everyone’s imagination.

Leave a comment

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