The demand for robotaxis, or self-driving cabs, could grow in the era of pandemics and social distancing as more people try to avoid getting in a vehicle with strangers.
A number of startups and established automakers are racing to release test versions of fully driverless cars within this year.
Boston Consulting Group recently suggested that the autonomous mobility and robotaxi industry would be worth $40 billion by 2030.
In a bid to get a head start in the race, Hyundai Motor Group and US self-driving technology firm Aptiv set up a $4 billion joint venture named Motional this year.
“There’s no question that the autonomous driving space is attractive, so we’re not at all surprised to see competition from some of the world’s largest companies,” Karl Iagnemma, CEO of Motional, said in an email interview with The Korea Herald.
“Our view is that the principal competition isn’t another tech company -- it’s consumer readiness. … As we put more vehicles on the road, we’ll bridge the gap between the perception of this technology, and the reality of how positively and permanently it will change our lives through safer roads, more free time, and increased mobility.”
Iagnemma was the former CEO of self-driving startup NuTonomy which was acquired by Delphi in 2017, and president of autonomous mobility at Aptiv until March this year, when he took helm of the joint venture with Hyundai.
Since NuTonomy, his team of engineers did the world’s first robotaxi pilot in Singapore in 2016, as well as the first cross-country New York to San Francisco autonomous trip in 2015.
From 2018, Aptiv’s fleet of safety-driver monitored robotaxis in Las Vegas have completed over 100,000 trips, in which 98 percent of the passengers rated their ride 5 out of 5.
“Longevity in this industry requires three key factors -- a proven capability to deliver reliable self-driving software, a deep strategic relationship with a global vehicle manufacturer, and significant capital. This mix is rare, and we have it,” Iagnemma said.
To foster the industry, the South Korean government plans to invest nearly 1.1 trillion won ($94.6 million) in developing fully self-driving technology in the next seven years.
In step with the government’s push, Hyundai plans to launch a fully autonomous fleet of vehicles for customers by 2024, and for the general public by 2027.
At the moment, Motional is focused on testing its first fully driverless system later this year.
“This system possesses advanced autonomous driving capabilities and a fully-functional safety system, to ensure that the system is both very smart and very safe,” the CEO said.
According to Iagnemma, Motional differentiates itself with real-world experience such as robotaxi operation; international presence with offices across the US, in Seoul and Singapore; and leadership in safety.
“Our footprint gives us robust testing capabilities. Singapore, for example, drives on the left side of the road, Boston experiences severe winters, while Las Vegas has dust storms and busy rider pick-up locations. This experience and footprint enables smart, scalable driverless technology that can safely navigate a wide range of environments,” he said.
“In 2018, we launched an industry-first with nuScenes, a publicly-available dataset that teaches driverless vehicles how to safely engage with their ever-changing road environments. nuScenes sparked a movement, with 10 plus similar datasets now available, and over 300 scientific papers published using our data.”
For legal, ethical and regulatory reasons, however, some say fully autonomous vehicles are still a long way off.
Iagnemma claims the contrary, citing Motional’s recent survey of over 1,000 Americans in which 62 percent said they believe self-driving vehicles are the way of the future.
“Twenty percent are more interested in self-driving technology than they were pre-COVID, and 60 percent are reconsidering their transportation choices to accommodate social distancing. As the pandemic challenges the global community to re-think transportation, what we’re building is more relevant than ever,” he said.
“Driverless vehicles will bring dramatic societal benefits. Human error is involved in approximately 94 percent of all motor vehicle accidents. Driverless vehicles are never drunk, drowsy or distracted.”
The company plans to have its first Motional-branded driverless systems and supporting technology available to robotaxi providers and fleet operators in 2022.
2022 is also the year Hyundai Motor plans to complete a plant in Singapore to roll out 30,000 electric cars annually, alongside a research and development lab.
More than half of the taxis running in Singapore are Hyundai-made, and the world’s fifth largest automaker plans to provide 2,000 hybrid taxis by this year to the island’s biggest taxi company. Comfort DelGro.
Also in Singapore, Hyundai is investing some $275 million in Grab, Southeast Asia’s leading ride-hailing mobile platform.
Motional’s engineers became involved with the Singapore-MIT alliance for research and development on urban mobility in 2009, which paved the way for NuTonomy to become a trailblazer of robotaxis.
“We believe robotaxis can significantly decrease congestion. In research that we conducted in Singapore, we found that smart, systematic driverless vehicle deployment could complete the same number of trips as a personally owned vehicle fleet, but with 60 percent fewer cars on the road,” Iagnemma said.
“Alongside driverless technology, we need the right policies and economic incentives to make the ecosystem operate smoothly. With the right deployment and regulations in place, we’ll see positive outcomes within this decade.”
By Kim So-hyun (email@example.com