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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The autonomous vehicle race is turning into a marathon, and the competitors are splintering off in different directions in search of the fastest, safest and most profitable road to self-driving technology.

The big picture: It's boiled down to a three-way contest among autonomous trucks, driverless robotaxis and privately owned cars that sometimes drive themselves.

  • Wall Street loves self-driving trucks at the moment. And the leading robotaxi developers are still able to raise private capital and borrow billions while fetching huge valuations.
  • The underdogs making surprising gains are suppliers of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) like adaptive cruise-control and lane-keeping tech. They're taking a bottom-up approach, gradually adding new features until they can achieve full self-driving capability.

The intrigue: ADAS suppliers have built-in advantages over companies pursuing those other strategies. They already make money selling their tech to carmakers, and because millions of cars are already equipped with some form of driver-assistance technology, they have the potential to scale more quickly.

Why it matters: At stake are billions of dollars in sunk investment, which for some companies could wind up being wasted.

  • The worry for robotaxi hopefuls, as the FT reported (subscription), is that the evolutionary approach by ADAS companies will succeed before they do.
  • “There’s no more dispute around whether robotaxis are real: they are real today,” Karl Iagnemma, CEO of self-driving company Motional, told the FT. “The question is whether the other guy can come along and do the same service, the same product, but at half the price. If you’ve got a competitor who’s in that position, you’re in big trouble.”

The state of play: Autonomous trucks are likely to beat self-driving cars to market because the economics are more favorable.

  • The pandemic showed how important trucking and logistics are to the economy, but companies are struggling with a shortage of drivers.
  • Leading AV truck players like TuSimple, Plus, Embark and Kodiak Robotics are preparing to launch self-driving rigs, while traditional truck manufacturers like Freightliner and PACCAR are signing deals to add AV tech from companies like Waymo and Aurora into their cabs.

Robotaxis, meanwhile, are inching closer to deployment. Companies like Waymo, Cruise and Amazon-backed Zoox are building their own ride-hailing networks. Others, like Argo AI and Motional, aim to deploy cars equipped with their tech on existing ride-hailing networks.

  • Yes, but: Robotaxis won't be deployed at scale for years, if not decades. Instead, they'll be limited to small, slow-moving fleets in specific urban neighborhoods.

ADAS suppliers aren't aiming for the moon, but they're making significant progress toward autonomy.

  • One example is Mobileye, whose camera sensors are already in millions of cars today.
  • Those sensors are collecting data that is used to create crowd-sourced maps that will enable AVs to drive anywhere. Last week, Mobileye began testing AVs in New York City.

What they're saying: "If you can conquer New York City, if you can conquer Tokyo, if you can conquer Tel Aviv, it opens up a very, very big part of the world to autonomous driving," Mobileye CEO Amnon Shashua tells Axios.

What to watch: Mobileye plans to launch a robotaxi service by next year, and says it plans to offer fully self-driving personal cars by 2024.

Go deeper

Nov 4, 2021 - Technology

Truck driving is a desk job at this freight tech company

There is no room for a driver in the Einride Pod. Remote drivers monitor its operation from a computer. Photo: Einride

Truck driving is becoming a desk job at Einride, the Swedish company whose electric Pods are now plying the freight yards at GE Appliances' 750-acre campus in Louisville, Kentucky.

Why it matters: The company's fleet of electric, autonomous trucks could be a model for the commercial freight industry, which faces a shortage of truck drivers and demands to reduce its carbon emissions.

How it works: Einride's trucks don't have a cab, which means there's no room for a driver on board.

  • Instead, the trucks operate autonomously, with a remote truck driver — or “Pod operator” — monitoring the journey behind a computer screen, ready to take over if necessary.
  • For example: a remote operator could take the wheel virtually to navigate a construction zone or handle last-minute instructions in a dynamic loading dock.
  • The goal is for remote drivers to monitor and control as many as 10 Pods at once, CEO and founder Robert Falck tells Axios.

Having a "human in the loop" allows the technology to be more readily adopted — in stages, he says.

  • The trucks will start in private freight yards, then gradually move to public roads and highways.
  • "Our ambition is to have at least 90% autonomous for different routes," he said.
  • Yes, but: U.S. regulations don't currently allow such trucks on public roadways, which means their practical use could be limited for some time.

Driving the news: Einride this week announced it is setting up U.S. operations in New York and introduced a U.S. version of its Einride Pod and a new Flatbed Pod.

  • It plans to create more than 2,000 U.S. jobs within five years, including remote Pod operators.
  • Remote drivers will have better pay, safer working conditions "and much better coffee," which could make the job more attractive, Falck said.
Updated 25 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Virginia attorney general fires Jan. 6 investigator from university post

McIntire Amphitheater at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: Robert Knopes/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The lead investigator for the Jan. 6 House select committee investigating the Capitol riot has been fired from his position as the University of Virginia's counsel by the state's new Republican attorney general, per the Washington Post.

Why it matters: Democrats say the removal of Tim Heaphy from his post after some three years while he's on leave from the university to investigate the insurrection is likely "retribution" for the House probe — an accusation strongly denied by the office of state Attorney General Jason Miyares (R).

4 hours ago - Sports

Gonzaga University revokes NBA great John Stockton's tickets over mask stance

Former Utah Jazz player John Stockton during a 2017 press conference in Salt Lake City. Photo: Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonzaga University suspended the season tickets of notable alumni John Stockton after the NBA Hall of Famer failed to comply with the school's basketball games mask mandate, the Spokesman-Review first reported.

Driving the news: "Basically, it came down to, they were asking me to wear a mask to the games and being a public figure, someone a little bit more visible, I stuck out in the crowd a little bit," the former Utah Jazz point guard told the outlet in an interview Saturday.