Mar 19, 2024 - Business

Robotaxi hopefuls work to overcome their rivals' sins

Illustration of an alarm siren light colored yellow with taxi cab checkers.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A dwindling number of self-driving car companies are striving to earn the public's trust, a challenge complicated by their competitors' mistakes.

Why it matters: High-profile incidents like the dragging of a pedestrian by a Cruise robotaxi last October have shaken public confidence in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.

The big picture: The mission hasn't changed: to make transportation safer and more accessible while reducing congestion and pollution.

Driving the news: Waymo began offering its driverless taxi service to riders in Los Angeles last week, and said it will do the same in Austin, Texas, in the coming months.

  • As in Phoenix and San Francisco, Waymo is proceeding cautiously, offering the service first to employees, then to select "early riders" before opening it to the general public.

What's next: By the end of 2024 — nine years after a visually impaired man named Steve Mahan took the world's first driverless ride in a Google self-driving car — Waymo plans to have public robotaxis running in four major cities.

  • "Once an unimaginable future, autonomous driving is now a real-world way of getting around for tens of thousands of people each week," Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana said in a statement.

State of play: Waymo, a unit of Google parent Alphabet, remains the clear leader in the AV industry.

  • Its closest rival, General Motors-owned Cruise, had its robotaxi license revoked in California and faces multiple investigations into its handling of the pedestrian accident. Its vehicles are sidelined nationwide pending further safety reviews.
  • Another competitor, Motional — co-owned by Hyundai and automotive supplier Aptiv — is scrambling for capital after Aptiv said it would reduce its stake and stop funding the company just months before it plans to launch a robotaxi service in Las Vegas. Motional bought a little time with a bridge loan last week, TechCrunch reported.
  • Zoox, owned by Amazon, recently expanded its driverless testing in Silicon Valley and along the Las Vegas strip, with hopes of opening up to public riders in Las Vegas later in 2024.
  • Volkswagen is regrouping after its previous AV joint venture with Ford, Argo.ai, collapsed at the end of 2022. It's now working with Mobileye on a planned robotaxi service with ride-hail partners in Austin, to begin in 2026.
  • Another company, Phantom Auto, which focused on remote teleoperations rather than fully autonomous driving, is shutting down after failing to secure new funding, TechCrunch also reported.

What they're saying: AVs were a big topic at last week's SXSW, Austin's signature technology and culture expo.

  • In an onstage conversation with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said AV companies need to do a better job of working with cities to avoid costly failures.
  • "I'm all for profit margins and stuff, but ultimately the public good has to play a role in this, and it shouldn't be sacrificed, and it shouldn't be secondary to the profit of the private entity," Watson said.

Asked about the mayor's remarks during a different session, Waymo's Mawakana said the company has worked hard to engage with local community groups and first responders.

  • At the same time, she pushed back against criticism from others that Waymo's robotaxis are too cautious and that the company is moving too slowly.
  • "We took a lot of heat for obeying traffic laws," she said. "Making sure that people feel safe in the vehicles before we actually scale in a particular jurisdiction, I think that's the right approach."

In a panel I moderated, Christian Senger, who heads up VW's autonomous driving efforts, emphasized the need to engage early with local policymakers and first responders and to expand incrementally, only after the technology meets the company's own safety standards.

  • As Katrin Lohmann, president of VW's ADMT (Autonomous Driving for Mobility and Transport as a Service) subsidiary, told me separately: "We're operating at the speed of trust."

The bottom line: It takes years for AV companies to earn the public's trust, but they can lose it instantly if they're not careful.

Disclosure: Reporting for this story took place at SXSW, where I moderated a session on autonomous vehicles. VW paid for my travel expenses to moderate the panel.

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