• Automated Vehicles
  • Mobility as a Service
  • Ride-Hailing

The Robotaxi Gives Way to Automated Delivery

Sam Abuelsamid
May 08, 2020

EV Fleet

As shelter-in-place mandates have been imposed around the world, a trend is accelerating in the automated driving (AD) space. The robotaxi that was supposed to make all of our personally owned vehicles obsolete may have itself become obsolete before it even became a reality. The AD technology that was hyped to eliminate the drudgery of commuting seems like it will instead be used to deliver our groceries and other needs. 

HAVs Far from Ready as Safety Levels Prove Difficult

Even before the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, it was clear that 2020 was not going to be the year where highly automated vehicles (HAV) took over from human drivers; HAVs are far from ready. A new Guidehouse Insights report, Market Data: Automated Driving Vehicles, projects that just over 300,000 HAVs will be deployed annually by 2025 and that volumes won’t reach into the millions until the late-2020s. 

Developing AD technology to the point where it is generally safer than human drivers is proving to be more difficult than anticipated. In January 2020, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann acknowledged that HAVs need super-human safety levels, but they aren’t as safe as humans yet. While some companies including Yandex and Waymo have done limited on-road tests without safety drivers, it’s usually in conditions with little or no traffic. All of the pilot and early stage commercial deployments still use human safety drivers to monitor the automation. 

Stay-at-Home Orders Stall Momentum

The pandemic only exacerbates the problem. Neither the technology nor the robotaxi business model are ready. Contemporary passenger-carrying mobility services have had one consistent theme, losing money. In late 2019, ReachNow, the JV mobility service owned by BMW and Daimler pulled out of North America. In late-April 2020, GM announced it was shutting down its Maven unit after already scaling it back significantly in 2019. 

Uber and Lyft have seen their ride-hailing bookings drop to near zero during the pandemic as people stop moving around and as those that do prefer to stay out of shared spaces and use personal vehicles instead. This is likely to be a challenge even after the pandemic subsides as travelers shy away from places in the new normal. 

Uptick in Deliveries Presents an Opportunity

While shared transportation for people has been shunned, people are more reliant on deliveries than ever. Services like Instacart, GrubHub, and UberEats, along with the larger package delivery services like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon have been kept busy. This presents an opportunity for companies developing HAVs. 

Waymo had already increased its efforts with partners such as AutoNation and Walmart in 2019. Much of the experimentation that Ford has been doing with its AV fleet in Miami has been focused on goods delivery. Ford COO Jim Farley indicated that this might be a higher priority than ride-hailing as the automaker commercializes its technology. Ford announced that it would delay its commercial launch to 2022 as it reevaluates its go-to-market strategy.

Meanwhile, during the pandemic, some of the HAVs that had been part of test fleets are demonstrating what is possible to enable social distancing and contactless delivery. NAVYA shuttles are delivering COVID-19 test samples at the Mayo Clinic in Florida. In Sacramento, California, Nuro delivery bots are delivering medical supplies at a pair of field hospitals and some of the Cruise fleet are making deliveries for two San Francisco food banks. 

HAVs with lockers for individual deliveries can also be readily outfitted with ultraviolet lamps to automatically disinfect after packages are removed, something that would be more challenging with passenger vehicles. Robotaxis may eventually arrive, but it’s looking like the delivery bot will win the race.