- Pilot Projects
- Automated Vehicles
A Challenging Post-COVID-19 Future for Robotaxis
The coronavirus outbreak has hit hard and at a time when the expansion of robotaxi pilots was much anticipated. During the global lockdown, the majority of pilots are on hold; it was expected that 2020 would see the enlargement of existing pilots and new pilots launched from some of the leading players. For example, Cruise’s long-awaited public launch and the rollout of the Tesla robotaxi network—which Elon Musk still hopes will happen later this year—were slated for 2020. However, pilot expansions are likely to be significantly postponed, and it is foreseeable that the overall development of robotaxis is further delayed as companies look to conserve capital to help weather the wider economic effects of the pandemic.
Notable exceptions to this have been in China. During April 2020, AutoX launched a pilot open to the general public in Shanghai; Baidu did the same in Changsha and Didi indicated it will follow suit in the coming months. The pandemic has largely been under control in China and, barring any major new outbreaks, these robotaxi companies may continue to progress with their development, taking the opportunity to catch up with their American rivals.
In the longer term, there may be further challenges on the road ahead. In addition to the expected reduction in overall demand for passenger travel, concerns about the spread of the coronavirus are expected to influence how consumers perceive and use robotaxis in the future. It is highly probable that the public will have greater reservations about shared mobility. In a recent IBM survey, US consumers expressed an increased preference for personal vehicle usage rather than public transportation or shared mobility. In addition to the shift to personal vehicles, it is expected that more people will walk, ride bicycles, or use other micromobility options.
How Robotaxis Can Adapt to the New Future
The robotaxi market must learn from the pandemic and have a flexible approach to adapt to the future environment. Measures should be taken to limit the transmission of diseases in vehicles. Baidu’s robotaxi service already provides vehicles that are disinfected before each ride and that measure passenger temperatures to identify suspected COVID-19 viral infections before permitting them to access the vehicle. Furthermore, automated methods of passenger temperature testing have also been demonstrated by Baidu.
A future scenario with reduced passenger travel and a renewed preference for personal vehicle use will have a considerable influence on demand for robotaxi services, and ridesharing in particular. In contrast, relative demand for delivery services is expected to increase; consumers minimizing travel will replace many of their shopping and restaurant trips with home deliveries. During the current lockdown, the robotaxi industry has responded to the crisis with many robotaxi vehicles being repurposed in the short-term for the automated delivery of food and essential goods. Examples of this include Pony.ai deploying its vehicles in Irvine for grocery deliveries and Cruise making food bank deliveries in the San Francisco Bay area. Furthermore, Ford and Waymo had already been testing automated delivery services.
These examples show that there could be a future role for automated vehicles dual-purposed for use as robotaxis and goods delivery vehicles. Automated vehicles could be part of a fleet that serves a single purpose or flip function based on demand with minimal preparation, for example, the removal of seats. The pandemic presents automakers with an opportunity to learn from the changing trends and focus the design of vehicles and software platforms to efficiently serve both passenger transport and goods deliveries while putting ridesharing on the back burner.