Weekly Brief: Ups-and-Downs Persist for Driverless Tech

Self-driving cars were supposed to be a star at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics; instead, they’re a side note.

Last year the Chinese government allowed Baidu to launch its Apollo Go robo-taxi service in Beijing’s Shougang Park, the neighborhood of the future athletes’ village. Event organizers envisioned robo-taxis transporting fans and athletes around Beijing from competitions to sleeping quarters, highlighting China as a hub of technological and automotive innovation.

Baidu got its service up and running in May 2021, making it the second commercialized robo-taxi service in the world after Waymo One in Phoenix, Arizona. Then the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics came along, where one of Toyota’s e-Palette autonomous transportation pods collided with a paralympic athlete with impaired vision as he crossed a street. The e-Palette was under the control of a human operator at the time of the collision but the optics were terrible. The headline stuck. The e-Palettes got shut down. Beijing took note.

Then came the Omicron coronavirus variant, whose alarming transmissibility caused the Beijing Olympic committee to prohibit all international fans from attending the games. The general public in China was also barred from buying tickets. Residential neighborhoods in Beijing were sealed off. Now the games are here with just a smattering of invited guests for spectators and hardly a word about self-driving cars, save for an odd moment in the Olympic torch relay when robots, robo-taxis and a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle helped to advance the torch through Beijing.

Such is life in the pandemic, when the vast array of human expectations and aspirations has been curbed, quarantined and confined to boxes too small for comfort. Self-driving vehicles will still be active in Beijing over the next two weeks but in a much less visible way than originally expected. Organizers in the logistics department are using a fleet of unmanned vehicles named “land wolves” to move parcels and goods about the games, to limit people-to-people contact and reduce the risk of Beijing 2022 turning into a super-spreader event of Olympic proportions.

Meanwhile, across the world in San Francisco, California, Cruise hit a major milestone last week when it opened its robo-taxi service to the general public. “San Francisco, are you ready for a ride like no other?” reads the banner on Cruise’s website, where San Franciscans can now sign up to join a waitlist. The company says it plans to start with a small number of users receiving free rides in Cruise robo-taxis and ramp up over time. Two of the first robo-taxis on the road will be named Poppy and Tostada. For achieving the milestone, the SoftBank Vision Fund invested an additional $1.35Bn in Cruise. Cruise says it plans to use the capital to grow its number of employees and fleet size and to scale to more cities soon.

No doubt Waymo has taken note. The industry leader spotted Cruise a sizable head start in San Francisco but, over the past year, Waymo has grown its operations quickly there, so much so that the Waymo and Cruise fleets in the city are now about equal in number. The major difference is that Waymo has a “drivered deployment permit” from the state of California, which allows it to charge for rides in a robo-taxi so long as a safety operator is behind the wheel, whereas Cruise has a “driverless deployment permit,” which allows it to charge for rides in a robo-taxi with no safety operator on board. Waymo is in the queue for the latter. When that permit comes through, Waymo will likely launch the equivalent of its Early Rider program from Phoenix in San Francisco.

At that point, it’s game on for commercial robo-taxi services in America. It will be interesting to see how Uber and Lyft respond. Robo-taxis running amuck in their hometowns will surely feel like salt in the wound, given their troubled histories trying to bring autonomous tech to market. It also will be interesting to watch how the general public receives Cruise and Waymo. Will there be enthusiasm? Trepidation? Blowback? Widespread support? The answer will surely influence how quickly the companies scale across the country, as much as the size of SoftBank’s and Alphabet’s pockets.

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