2021 Auto Industry Outlook: Where Autonomous Vehicles Will Stand

Article By : Egil Juliussen

It is time to do some speculation on what may happen with autonomous vehicles in 2021. Last year was somewhat muted in the AV industry...

It is time to speculate on what may happen with autonomous vehicles in 2021. Last year was somewhat muted in the AV industry, but the pandemic had lots of impact on AV strategy and relative importance of the AV use-cases. Autonomous trucks and goods AVs rose in importance at the expense of robotaxis. The exception was China, where robotaxi testing and trials grew dramatically.

The following table is an overview of key AV trends for 2021 with some comparisons to 2020.

(Source: Egil Juliussen)

NHTSA AV Regulation
NHTSA’s work on regulation for AVs is an important event in 2021. I wrote two columns on NHTSA’s AV regulation effort: NHTSA is Defining Safety for Self-Driving Cars, But It Has Questions For You and NHTSA Frames Safety for Cars without Drivers. Hopefully it will be completed in 2021, but 2022 may be more realistic.

SPACs and IPOs
Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) are making a big impact on bringing AV companies public instead of traditional IPOs. In 2020 several lidar and sensing companies went public via SPACs, including Velodyne, Luminar, Innoviz and Aeva. It is likely that SPAC-based IPOs will continue for lidar startups and expand in 2021 to other AV segments such as AV software platforms, autonomous trucking, and AV processor companies.

AV Consolidation
The AV industry is also ripe for consolidation as two major acquisitions in 2020 showed. Amazon acquired Zoox in June 2020 and Aurora acquired Uber’s autonomous vehicle group in December 2020. A smaller acquisition also happened in December 2020 as Nuro acquired Ike Robotics.

More AV consolidations are expected in 2021 with lidar acquisitions being a sure thing as Tier 1 suppliers and auto OEMs will be looking for opportunities. Some of the many lidar startups may not receive additional VC funding and they may be on the market at fire-sale prices. Lidar companies with frequency-modulated continuous wave (FMCW) technology will become more desirable and may become attractive acquisition candidates.

Autonomous Trucks
Autonomous trucks rose to prominence in 2020 and is likely to see continued investments and advances. There will be rapid testing expansion in the southwestern states of the United States. Plus.ai is expected to start testing in Europe and start production of its autonomous truck products in 2021.

Two leading AV software platform companies, Waymo and Aurora, have entered the autonomous truck segment and is expected to be strong competitors. Aurora just announced cooperation with Paccar and Waymo is working with Daimler’s truck brands. This shows that both Aurora and Waymo will have a larger role in autonomous trucking in 2021.

Sometime in 2021 we are likely to see autonomous truck testing without safety driver. TuSimple has already announced it will test driverless trucks in 2021 and others may do so too.

The autonomous truck activities should see steep growth in 2021 — from about 150 autonomous trucks in 2020 to over 2,000 autonomous trucks at year-end 2021 on a global basis. Note that autonomous trucks are being used in hub-to-hub use cases were the vast majority of AV operations are on highways. If the leading logistics companies such as FedEx, UPS, Amazon, and Walmart increase their autonomous truck testing, these numbers may be on the low side.

Goods AVs
NHTSA released new regulation on January 13, 2021 that will be useful to goods-only AVs. The regulation called Occupant Protection for Vehicles with Automated Driving Systems. It means that goods-only AVs does not need occupant protection nor human driver control. In essence, this regulation matches the exemption that Nuro received in 2020.

Goods AVs have two main segments, on-road AVs and sidewalk AVs. On-road AVs have a variety of vehicle sizes from vans and small trucks to special-purpose goods AVs such as Nuro R2. I expect the special-purpose goods AVs will see strong growth in 2021 with Nuro leading the way in the U.S. and Neolix in China. Neolix’s special purpose goods AV were shown by Valeo at the 2020 CES and Valeo could be a future market entrant.

The on-road goods AVs are expected to make great strides forward in 2021 and could grow from about 100 units in 2020 to several thousand at year-end 2021 on a global basis. If Waymo, Cruise and Ford get aggressive using their AVs for on-road goods deliveries in 2021, these numbers could be higher.

Sidewalk AVs have even greater growth potential in 2021. Due to their low speed, they have less potential for crash damage. Starship has been the leader with many tests delivering groceries in multiple cities. Starship and its competitors were also successful delivering fast food to in university settings. This slowed down during the pandemic but should pick up in 2021.

The potential e-commerce deliveries from Amazon and FedEx, which have their own sidewalk AV developments, is even larger and may take off in late 2021. Hence, sidewalk AVs could grow from around 400 in 2020 to over 4,000 at year-end 2021 with a potential for much more. At some point, sidewalk AV usage will explode to tens of thousands, but that may wait until 2022 or 2023.

Robotaxi testing with safety drivers will expand to many more cities in China and U.S. We will also see robotaxi testing starting in more European cities and in other countries in Asia. Paid robotaxi services with safety drivers will see significant expansion in cities in China and U.S. and a few other regions.

Driverless robotaxi testing will expand in the U.S., China, Europe, and Israel—possible in a few more countries. Some paid service deployment will also take place in some of these areas.

The number of robotaxis being used for testing at year-end 2020 was over 500 units in U.S. and China with Waymo have the largest share. This is expected to grow tremendously by year-end 2021—possibly to over 10K units. Much of the expansion size will depend on Waymo’s plans in California and/or other cities. China growth will also be a key factor. Mobileye expansion plans is the third factor.

Fixed Route AVs
Fixed route AVs was greatly impacted by the pandemic since they provide shared mobility services. As the pandemic impact declines by mid-2021 and later, the opportunities for fixed rout AVs will pick up. Many transportation services were already interested in these AVs and have gotten more time to evaluate how and where to do further testing and deployment, which will start in late 2021. I think 2022 will be an even better year.

Personal AVs
We will not see any personal AVs in 2021 or the following years. The focus is on expanding L1 and L2 ADAS functions with L2+ appearing on a few models. L3 may also be available. However, I am in favor of skipping L3 because some drivers will not be able to take control of the driving task in some emergency situations. And if/when this happens the whole AV industry will see a negative impact.

The timing of when personal L4 AVs could be available got a boost from Mobileye’s CES 2021 presentation. See: With FMCW Lidar & Radar, Mobileye Targets Consumer AV in 2025.
Mobileye believes its strategy using two independent perception systems (camera and lidar/radar), RSS (responsibility-sensitive safety) and REM (Road Experience Management) will be mature enough for personal L4 AVs in 2025. I think this is aggressive by a year or two but has shortened the wait from the 2030-timeframe that seemed reasonable prior to Mobileye’s presentation.

2021 will be a good year for all use-cases of autonomous vehicles with strong technical advances across sensors, processors, software, and safety. Much business expansion will also happen with AV use-case growing by 10X but from a small base in 2020.

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