Autonomous vehicles offer the promise of improved safety and efficiency on the roads. A few years ago, the hype around this technology was at its peak, with many industry experts predicting that we would soon see fully autonomous vehicles on our roads.
According to McKinsey, between 2010 to 2021, investors have poured nearly $330bn into more than 2,000 mobility companies. And about two-thirds of it, or $206bn, went to autonomous-vehicle (AV) technologies and smart mobility. The investors included some major players in the industry, such as Ford, Volkswagen, GM, Google, and more.
Corporations were willing to bet big on the technology because of the fear of missing out. However, it's been realized that full autonomy is harder than expected to achieve. The industry presents a mixed reality. On the one hand, we see Ford and Volkswagen shutting down their self-driving project and Alibaba bringing down its autonomous driving research lab for the need of monetization. On the other hand, Tesla and Samsung still hold their hope high in autonomous vehicles, and the UK has launched its first self-driving bus service.
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Overcoming the hurdles of full autonomy for the future of mobility
It's clear that the industry is taking steady (but slower than expected) steps in developing autonomous technology. Why are fully autonomous vehicles still not around the corner yet? These are some major challenges that many autonomous vehicle companies are tackling.
- The technology
One of the biggest challenges has been the difficulty of creating reliable and robust systems that can safely navigate complex real-world environments. There are five levels of driving automation, ranging from Level 0 (no automation at all) to Level 5 (fully autonomous technology).
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Although progress has been made in recent years, with some vehicles now featuring more advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), Level 5 fully autonomous vehicles remain rare. This is due in part to the significant technical hurdles that must be overcome but also to the increasingly complex regulatory environment that surrounds the development and testing of autonomous vehicles. Most autonomous vehicle companies, however, have achieved Level 2 or Level 3 autonomy. And they're already making meaningful innovations in how we transport with their mobility solutions.
To many companies, electrification seems more like a priority. One example of a company that has shifted its priorities towards electrification is Uber. After selling its autonomous driving unit, Uber has committed to becoming a fully electric mobility platform by 2025, according to the company announcement.
This shift towards electrification makes sense for several reasons. Firstly, the technology is more mature than autonomous driving, and as such, companies can expect quicker returns on investment. Secondly, governments worldwide are implementing regulations and incentives that favor EVs, such as tax breaks, subsidies, and emissions standards. Thirdly, consumer demand for EVs is increasing, driven by greater awareness of climate change and interest in sustainable transportation.
- Public opinion
Public opinion is a critical factor in developing autonomous driving technology, but it has been largely overlooked in recent years. While many people appreciate the potential safety benefits of autonomous vehicles, there are still significant trust issues that must be addressed before people will accept them. To address these issues, companies need to take a more proactive approach with the public to address their concerns.
Autonomous vehicle companies paving the way for the city of the future
Despite these challenges, there are many potential benefits to the technology. The development of autonomous driving technology continues, with many companies investing heavily in research and development.
The technology still has the potential to transform transportation in significant ways. Although we still have a long way to go for Level 5 autonomy, companies focusing on Level 2 or 3 autonomy are already using their technologies to reshape the future of mobility. The applications are also not limited to transporting humans. There are several mobility solutions that offer us a promising outlook of transportation in the city of the future.
- Lunewave's Luneburg lens radar technology provides long-range hi-resolution detection required for ADAS and autonomous vehicles. Its radar can see highly-granular data in all weather conditions, allowing vehicles to react faster and make split-second decisions. Enabled by its intelligent algorithms, the system also includes capabilities such as interference avoidance and adaptive sensing
- Ottopia's software allows for remote monitoring, remote assistance, and remote driving. It presents actionable information to fleet supervisors through mapped cellular coverage from all available networks. The software presents various methods for the operator to help when a vehicle encounters a situation it can't handle. Ottopia's platform guides hundreds (and eventually thousands) of driverless vehicles when only a few operators are needed to supervise them
- Deepen's multi-sensor data labeling and calibration tools accelerate computer vision training for autonomous vehicles. The company is the founder of SafetyPool.ai, a database of validation scenarios for ADAS and AV. Deepen Calibrate enables calibration for all sensors in the system and sensor-to-sensor calibration in seconds. Its annotation tools have processed billions of LiDAR and camera labels for all types of use cases
- Einride provides digital, electric, and autonomous shipping technology. Its Autonomous Gen 2 employs precision sensing technologies, including advanced lidar, satellite, and cameras, to ensure safety. The autonomous truck claims to be the first vehicle of its type to be operated on a public road. The company's advanced shipping solutions showcase inspiring opportunities as we transit to the future of mobility. Einride recently became Plug and Play's 31st unicorn. To learn more about Einride and other Plug and Play unicorns, check out our unicorn report
- Plus.ai's approach to autonomy is focused on building high-performance modular solutions that are affordable and scalable. Its solution, PlusDrive®, enables Level 2++ (L2++) supervised autonomy, making driving safer, easier, and more comfortable. Its perception system and deep learning models perceive the autonomous truck’s surroundings, predict what’s coming next, and maneuver the vehicle, all under the supervision of the driver
- Gatik is an autonomous vehicle company tackling expensive urban logistics for businesses. The company focuses on short-haul, B2B logistics for the retail industry. It uses Level 4 light autonomous trucks and vans to ensure goods are transported efficiently and affordably in city environments
Last-mile delivery and robotics
- Delivers.ai offers an on-demand autonomous last-mile delivery service. The product is designed to autonomously deliver food, grocery, and parcels from shops to customers' doorsteps. The company claims to have created proprietary camera-based autonomous technologies with low-cost sensors that are scalable and widely deployable, which lowers manufacturing and operational costs significantly.
- Tortoise automates logistics for light electric vehicles like delivery bots and shared scooters. The Tortoise Cart is its first-of-its-kind remote-controlled grocery and parcel delivery bot. Tortoise’s solution enables small connected vehicles to move around their environment with simple software integration safely. Its mobility solution aims at changing how operators manage connected vehicles in the last-mile delivery and construction sectors.
- Ducktrain is a small, automated, and electric logistics vehicle made for urban areas. The applications include parcel delivery, food delivery, and cargo, made possible by different types of "Ducks." Ducktrain reimagines transportation in the city of the future, where the streets are not filled by bulky delivery trucks but by small and smart vehicles in a row.
There are various reasons why we should be excited about vehicle autonomy. It can reduce traffic congestion and increase accessibility for people who aren't able to drive while increasing operational efficiency and the safety of our roads. The potential benefits are vast, whether for autonomous transportation, logistics, last-mile delivery, or connectivity. The technology will revolutionize current mobility solutions and reshape our city of the future.
Despite the challenges that remain, autonomous vehicle companies aren't slowing down their progress of bringing full autonomy to reality. On May 16, Chinese tech giant Baidu shared that Apollo Go, the company’s autonomous ride-hailing service, provided around "660K rides in the first quarter of 2023, up 236% year over year and 18% quarter over quarter." This is exciting news for the autonomous driving sector. Apollo Go was also the first to receive permits in Beijing to “operate ride-hailing services with no driver or safety operator in the vehicles” this March, according to Baidu. With many startups and corporates working on autonomous vehicle technologies, we can expect to see more breakthroughs in this space in the near future.