The self-driving industry appears to be moving away from the idea of robotaxis after several significant setbacks in recent years. As reported by FT, the hope was that a self-driving Uber would come to market soon. However, this looks to be
No longer looking at robotaxis the self-driving sector is now looking at more lucrative options. These include highway-restricted vehicles such as grocery deliveries and long-haul trucks.
Self-driving robotaxis no longer the focus
All sorts of companies and groups have looked into the possibilities of self-driving. Amazon, for example, has run significant tests on its automated home delivery service. Whilst Uber has struggled to make real progress towards a viable automated taxi.
This has led the focus moving away from the idea of a robotaxi. It is no longer seen as a viable or profitable application of self-driving technology.
Initially, the focus on self-driving technology was purely research-based with little market application in the thought process. However, the inception of Uber in 2013 changed all that as the company looked for a more portable way to run its business.
It was assumed that driverless taxis would essentially be a cash machine on wheels. Back in 2015, Elon Musk said he viewed the problem as "solved". He expected self-driving taxis to be a reality in the proceeding years.
However, we know that not to be the case. Companies such as Zoox and Cruise who pioneered this research started to run out of money in the last couple of years.
Waymo was the only company able to pioneer driverless cars even vaguely successfully. However, the company was based on the wide roads of Pheonix Arizona which made Uber's city conquering goals seem a long way off.
Highway-only autonomy catches industry attention
With the concept of robotaxis now on life-support, attention has shifted. The self-driving industry is now looking at the idea of highway-only autonomy. This simplifies the problems that need solving. If engineers could make self-driving work on highways then that could still make for a profitable system.
Given the driver shortages in the American trucking sector, the idea of self-driving is a very appealing one. The likelihood is that self-driving trucks would not be ready until 2027 so it is a way off. However, the investment is there and research is intense.
The idea is to create 'transfer hubs' near the highway. This would see drivers transport the freight from the warehouse to one of these hubs. Then the self-driving truck would transport the long section on the highway to another hub before another driver picks it up and takes the freight the last few miles.
Because trucking is much more consistent, mapping issues are considerably easier. The same routes are used at the same times which was one of the problems with robotaxis.
Self-driving passenger cars still a possibility
The concept of self-driving passenger cars may also become a reality at some stage as well. Since costs of key parts such as "lidars" has collapsed this has made them considerably more affordable. Tesla has long promised a purchasable driverless car and that does still remain a possibility.
The idea is that full-autonomy may be some way off. However, highway-autonomy may be closer than we think and a genuine option in the near future.
How long any of this will actually take is anyone's guess. However, it is clear that the focus is now firmly on creating highway-autonomy for self-driving vehicles. Now the scope and ambition of these projects have become a bit more realistic we could see some serious results in a much more manageable timeframe.