Alwyn Viljoen
2 minute read
26 Aug 2021
06:28

Robocars a step closer

Alwyn Viljoen

The race to be first with self-driving cars started as a sprint, but soon morphed into a marathon that now sees three runners in a straggling lead in the U.S. — Waymo, General Motors and AutoX.

The race to be first with self-driving cars started as a sprint, but soon morphed into a marathon that now sees three runners in a straggling lead in the U.S. — Waymo, General Motors and AutoX.

Waymo on Tuesday edged a nose ahead by launching a fleet of self-driving, all electric Jaguar iPace SUVs to operate as robo-taxis in San Francisco, home to the hottest tech companies in the U.S..

One of these companies is Uber, whose maverick CEO Travis Kalanick in 2016 chomped down on the regulatory bit and let loose a fleet of self-driving Volvo cars in San Franciso. This was when the race to be first with self-driving cars was still a sprint between Google, Uber, Lyft and AutoX in China, instead of the three-lead marathon it has morphed into.

The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) did not take kindly to such use of people as guinea pigs and told Uber to go do more testing somewhere safer and only come back in 2020.

Uber instead joined its driverless project with Aurora Innovations, a San Francisco-based startup founded in 2016 by the former head engineer of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson.

Waymo, a stand-alone company within Google parent company Alphabet, has been testing its robocars in the sleepy suburb of Chandler in Phoenix since 2018. Waymo last year reached a milestone when it sent out its cars and vans without a safety driver for the first time, two years before AutoX did so in the Pingshan district of Shenzhen.

Waymo is still waiting on the CPUC to register what is said to be a fleet of some 200 Jaguar robo-cabs.

Meanwhile, the service is free to “testers” who have downloaded the Waymo app and signed all the waivers. The safety drivers that climbed out in Phoenix are also back behind the wheel in San Francisco.

One of the hundreds of self-driving people movers currently used alongside SUVs by AutoX in Shenzhen (China).
General Motor’s self-driving Cruise is having a spot of bother with self-combusting batteries, but remains among the robo-taxi leaders.
Zoox, Amazon’s autonomous taxi company, tested in San Francisco.PHOTO: Reddit

Who will be first?

For those looking for stocks to buy, the race to be first with driverless vehicles may yet see a photo finish between General Motors and Waymo.

While General Motors had to announce a massive recall to fix the smouldering batteries of the Cruise last week, the CPUC has already granted driverless permits for the Cruise.

However, AutoX was last year also granted a licence to test driverless cars by the California Department of Motor Vehicles and there are a slew of startups nipping at their heels.

In the U.S. these are currently led by Aurora Innovations, but close behind are Ford, China’s Baidu and Waymo, Tesla, Hyundai’s Motional, Aptiv and the Toyota-Lyft venture.

Regardless of which company wins this race, the robots are closing in.