The automobile world is in quiet retreat on the topic of fully autonomous vehicles (AVs). As an excellent article by Steve LeVine in Marker described, vehicle autonomy is closely linked with ride-sharing, and in the pandemic era we’re going through, nobody wants to share cars much anymore. Toyota smart vehicle technology, on the other hand has been quietly positioned as driver assist and support rather than autonomous.
From an article in Forbes by Tom Davenport.
The ever-optimistic Elon Musk, who claimed that a fleet of robotaxi Teslas would be on the road by 2020, still says the technology is ready (though none of us has seen it), but he at least admits that regulatory approval might be a problem. Ford postponed and GM discontinued (Maven—its AV subsidiary Cruise continues, albeit with cutbacks) their shared vehicle robotaxis, and Uber says it’s dismantling its AI Lab. Starsky Robotics, an autonomous truck firm, went out of business. As my favorite car magazine Car & Driver put it in the title of a recent article, “Self-Driving Cars Are Taking Longer to Build Than Everyone Thought.”
Some AV firms are keeping a stiff upper lip, but almost everyone except Musk admits that it’s going to take a good while before we can binge watch “Better Call Saul” while our car handles the driving. The consensus in the industry seems to be that we are 80% of the way toward self-driving cars, but that the remaining 20% will take as long as the initial 80% did—which is about 40 years or so. There will, of course, be some highly constrained environments in which self-driving cars can thrive—geofenced, pedestrian free zones in cities, for example—but they aren’t likely to sell a lot of cars or trucks.
All of which makes Toyota’s strategy on smart cars the smartest one around. For years it’s been pursuing Guardian—a project at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) focused on making human driving smarter and safer. Gill Pratt, the CEO of TRI (and a former professor at Babson’s sister school, Olin College of Engineering), has emphasized the safety theme for several years now.
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