May 8, 2020 - Economy

Self-driving car folly seems more realistic after coronavirus

Illustration of top down car on dollar skid marks

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Self-driving cars are the kind of speculative, cash-gobbling experiment that typically gets axed at a time like this. But if anything, this pandemic has shown the demand for autonomous vehicles could be larger than expected.

Why it matters: People are re-examining their personal transportation options to maximize social distancing while discovering they can get almost anything they need delivered quickly to their home — two trends that could radically change the future of transportation.

What's happening: Despite economic woes, most autonomous vehicle developers say now is not the time to cut back. While many have temporarily suspended AV road tests, they continue to rack up simulated miles as they plow ahead with software and hardware development.

  • "The fundamentals are not changing," Amnon Shashua, CEO of Intel's Mobileye AV unit, tells Axios. "You need to lean in, rather than pull back." Just this week, Intel acquired Moovit, an urban mobility app, to bolster Mobileye's plans for a new robotaxi service.
  • "Our commitment is unwavering," General Motors CEO Mary Barra told investors, confirming the automaker's plan to build the quirky Origin, an electric AV shuttle for its upcoming Cruise robotaxi service.
  • Even Ford, which pushed back the launch of its AV service by a year, to 2022, says the delay is only to make sure it gets consumer preferences right. The automaker is still on track to spend more than $4 billion on AVs by 2023.

The big picture: Auto and tech companies are focusing on a handful of factors that will influence the movement of people and goods in the future, even as consumer behavior changes.

1. People might shun public transportation, but they still need to get around.

  • More than 20% of respondents who regularly use buses, subways and trains said they would stop doing so, and 28% said they would use them less often, according to an IBM study of consumer behavior.
  • Not everyone has that option. People who don't own a car or can't walk to a grocery store "are taking some personal risk getting on a bus or a subway," says Waymo CEO John Krafcik.
  • Waymo's self-driving minivans, which will resume testing Monday in Phoenix, could offer an alternative, he says.

2. Widespread use of personal cars isn't practical in cities.

  • 17% of people surveyed said they plan to use ride-sharing less often, and 1 in 4 said they plan to use their personal vehicle exclusively from now on, IBM's study found.
  • "Mobility cannot be satisfied with owning a car, especially in urban areas," says Mobileye's Shashua.
  • For city dwellers, that means shared AV fleets will likely be part of the solution.

3. Building trust in shared AVs requires a new dimension in safety: hygiene.

  • Consumers want to know their self-driving car won't crash, or give them a potentially deadly virus.
  • Look for companies to employ innovations like UV lights to regularly disinfect vehicles and to promote cleanliness as a way to help passengers feel safe, writes Reilly Brennan, a partner at Trucks Venture Capital, in a recent blog post.

4. Autonomous delivery is ready to take off.

  • A 30% surge in e-commerce since early March, plus the growing popularity of "contactless" delivery for everything from groceries and pizza to new vehicles underscores the potential for robot delivery services.
  • Some companies are already dabbling in autonomous delivery during the pandemic. In San Francisco, some Cruise test vehicles are making deliveries for food pantries; in Las Vegas, Aptiv's test vehicles are delivering meals for Lyft.

The bottom line: Creating a self-driving service involves more than building a safe vehicle. It has to deliver value to consumers. The pandemic might be a catalyst for adoption.

Go deeper