How Far Are Robotaxis Progressing?

Article By : Egil Juliussen

Robotaxis are progressing. But how far? In the last two weeks, I spotted two pretty significant announcements in the United States...

Robotaxis are progressing. But how far?

In the last two weeks, I spotted two pretty significant announcements in the United States. Waymo revealed that nearly all of its robotaxi rides in the Phoenix area will be operating without safety drivers starting last week. Cruise released a blog to say it had received a California DMV permit to operate AVs without safety drivers. Cruise said it plans to start robotaxi operation in San Francisco before the end of 2020.

What is the impact of these two announcements and how does it compare with other robotaxi activities?

There are at least two big steps to get to driverless robotaxi deployment.

The first step is to build and train a software driver platform to reach a certain competency level. Today there is no definition of what that competency level should be. Hopefully we will soon get such a definition that the AV industry will quickly implement. Currently each company decides when they have reached this competency state.

The second step is to adapt the software driver platform for deployment in a specific AV use-case—this column is about the robotaxi use-case. From recent activities it looks like this step has a sequence of four phases.

Robotaxis services with safety drivers will be the first phase—usually starting with a free trial service with limited number of customers. The next phase is a paid service with safety drivers and larger customer base. The third phase is usually a small driverless trial service that is free. The fourth phase is a larger paid driverless robotaxi service. The four-step sequence will take from two to four years depending on how much previous experience the company has gained. Phase zero is to compile the high definition maps that are needed for accurate location technology.

The following table summarizes the activities for robotaxi activities without safety drivers or where this is likely to happen within a year. I am also including the phases to driverless robotaxis to get perspectives on potential future timelines.

In Phoenix, it took Waymo over two years from its June 2017 Early Rider start to first driverless activities in September 2019. It took another year until October 2020 when Waymo One became a driverless service. The Covid pandemic probably delayed the last step by six months or so.

Click the table above to enlarge. (Source: Egil Juliussen)

California driverless AV activities
I will first look at the California driverless AV activities. California has been the leader in AV testing since 2014 when the first AV testing program became available. I think California DMV has done a good job at setting the AV rules.

I am sure there are lots of critique from many sides, but there was no playbook and California had to create one.

There are lots of rules for AV testing in California. Links to AV testing with safety driver and without safety driver are here.  It is important to understand that California driverless AV operation is considerably more stringent than AVs with safety drivers. The two most important factors are the limited area of operation and the requirement for remote control or teleoperation capabilities.

The AV company must have a plan to provide information to law enforcement and other first responders on how to interact with the driverless AVs. The size of the permitted operational area is based on where the AV company has gained road experience from using AVs with safety drivers.

In the above table you can see that Waymo can drive in Santa Clara County within the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Sunnyvale. Waymo received this permit on October 30, 2018. Waymo’s blog has a map of where it can deploy driverless AV testing.

Waymo’s AVs are allowed to do day and night testing on city streets, rural roads and highways with posted speed limits of up to 65 miles per hour. The permit also allows test drives in fog and light rain. This means Waymo has been testing its driverless AVs for nearly two years, but little details are available.

Cruise has provided trial robotaxi services for its employees since June 2018 with safety drivers. This will change as Cruise received its driverless permit for the city of San Francisco on October 15, 2020. Cruise plans to start driverless AV testing before the end of 2020.

Cruise will soon be able to provide robotaxi service for an area that is around 47 square miles but will need an additional permit from PUC to make it a paid service.

One AV driverless permit is not listed in the table—it is to Nuro for goods deliveries. Nuro can test two driverless vehicles on surface streets in designated areas of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. The cities include portions of Atherton, East Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Los Altos, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Woodside.

Teleoperation is quite important and allow remote control of a driverless AV when needed. It is likely that Waymo and Cruise have developed their own teleoperation technologies. I plan to write a separate column on teleoperation later this year.

AutoX received a permit from the California Public Utility Commission (PUC) in mid-2019 to test a free robotaxi service with safety drivers in parts of San Jose. Minimal information is available on how AutoX has used this permit. AutoX received a driverless AV testing permit in July 2020. AutoX can operate driverless AVs in a portion of San Jose, but the permit does not specify where.Zoox received a driverless AV testing permit in September 2020.

Zoox can test driverless AVs in parts of Foster City in California—again no data on where in the permit. Zoox is now part of Amazon and plans to use its driverless AV testing permit in the future.

Aspencore Guide to Sensors in Automotive – Making Cars See and Think Ahead

Other regions
Motional, the joint venture by Aptiv and Hyundai, is a leading robotaxi operator with safety drivers. Since mid-2018, Motional has provided over 100,00 robotaxi rides in Las Vegas with Lyft as the ride-hailing partner. Motional has also done testing in Singapore and Boston. Motional has not announced its plans for driverless robotaxi rides.

Mobileye has tested its AVs in Israel for several years. Mobileye has shown at least two videos with detailed view of AV driving performance. Junko Yoshida’s recent article entitled “Is AV Software Driver Detecting What We Are Seeing?” has lots of perspectives on Mobileye’s technology.

Mobileye is planning to test a free robotaxi service in Jerusalem with safety drivers in 2021. Paid service without safety driver is planned for 2022 in Jerusalem. Mobileye is planning to expand its robotaxi deployment across Europe, U.S. and other regions.

Baidu Apollo started its free robotaxi service with safety drivers in Changsha, China in April 2020. In September 2020 Baidu Apollo got the first permit in China for driverless robotaxi trial in Changsha. It will probably take another year until this permit becomes paid driverless robotaxi service.

The next column will look at how the robotaxi market may increase with perspectives and projections on how key players may expand their robotaxi footprints.

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