Home » Stop and Go: The hurdles for autonomous cars from Cruise, Waymo and Co.

Stop and Go: The hurdles for autonomous cars from Cruise, Waymo and Co.

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Stop and Go: The hurdles for autonomous cars from Cruise, Waymo and Co.

Do the autonomous cars that drive through the streets of San Francisco as “robotaxis” live up to their promises? Last year it almost looked like this. Calling one of the driverless cars from Waymo or Cruise had briefly become a trend in the city – as easy as ordering a delivery via the app. But a serious accident in downtown San Francisco in October shattered that dream. Mistrust spread among citizens, who expressed themselves in protests. The future of autonomous driving (on this scale) was no longer conceivable.


After this and another accident, the state of California suspended Cruise’s operations indefinitely and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the company. Since then, Cruise has retired all of its vehicles and laid off 24 percent of its workforce. A city lawsuit recently became public against the federal agency that allowed Waymo and Cruise to drive their cars on city streets.

However, this development is not currently stopping other companies such as Waymo and Baidu from offering their services in other cities in the USA and China. In cities like Phoenix, Beijing and Shanghai, authorities now allow these vehicles to drive without human security guards.

But companies are under pressure. They must recoup the enormous sums invested in their development and operation. Until autonomous taxis become cheaper, they cannot really compete with traditional taxis and Uber. However, if providers try to increase adoption too quickly, they risk following in Cruise’s footsteps. Waymo has moved more slowly and cautiously compared to Cruise. Nevertheless, no one is immune from accidents.

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“If an accident occurs, it will make big headlines and hurt everyone,” says Missy Cummings, professor and director of the Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center at George Mason University. “That’s the big lesson this year. The entire industry is on thin ice.”

Based on information from industry experts, the challenges facing providers are summarized below and a summary of what changes are expected in the industry this year.

After years of testing driverless taxis on the road, companies have shown that a version of autonomous driving technology is ready for use today – albeit with serious flaws. They only function within strict, predetermined geographical boundaries. While some cars no longer have a human driver in the driver’s seat, they still require remote controls to take control in an emergency. They are limited to warmer climates because snow and even fog can pose a challenge to the cars’ cameras and sensors.

“From what has become public knowledge, these systems still rely on some remote human control to function safely. That’s why I call them automated, not autonomous,” says Ramanarayan Vasudevan, associate professor of robotics and mechanical engineering at the U of Michigan.

The problem is that this version of automated driving is much more expensive than traditional taxis. A ride with a robotaxi can be “several orders of magnitude more expensive than the cost of other taxi companies,” he says. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the technology will change dramatically in the next few years to really reduce these costs.”

This higher fare will inevitably dampen demand. If automated taxis want to retain their customers – and not just those who want to try it for the first time – they need to make the service cheaper than other forms of transport.

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Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, shares that concern. “These companies are competing with an Uber driver who is estimated to make less than minimum wage, has a mid-priced car and is probably maintaining it himself,” he says.

In contrast, driverless cars are expensive vehicles that are packed with cameras, sensors and advanced software systems and require constant human monitoring and care. It’s almost impossible for them to compete with ride-sharing services, at least until many more robotaxis hit the road.

And as companies rely on more and more money from investors, concerns are growing that they won’t get enough back for their huge expenses, Smith says. This means there is even more pressure to deliver results while balancing potential revenue and costs.

There are currently four cities in the US where you can use a robotaxi: San Francisco (but the aforementioned lawsuit is ongoing), Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Conditions vary from city to city. In some, you first have to go on a waiting list, which can take months, while in others the vehicles are only used in a small area.

Expanding the service to a new city involves great effort and expense: the new area must be thoroughly mapped (and that map must be kept up to date), and the operator must purchase more autonomous vehicles to keep up with demand Keep up.

Additionally, cars whose autonomous systems are aimed at San Francisco, for example, have limited ability to adapt to Austin, says Cummings, who is researching how to measure this kind of adaptability. “If I look at this as a fundamental research question, it probably means that companies haven’t learned anything important yet,” she says.

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It is therefore unsurprising that these factors are raising renewed doubts about the profitability of the business model. Even after Cruise took its vehicles off the road, Waymo, the other major player in the U.S., hasn’t stepped in to fill the vacuum. Since every trip with the robotaxi currently costs the company more money than it earns, there is initially little urge for endless expansion.

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