Carmakers are all eager to get driverless vehicles on the road, as they will unleash a plethora of new services worth billions of euros, not least in the ride hailing area. Crucial to the development of autonomous cars are thousands of test vehicles driving millions of kilometres to make the software intelligent enough to cope with every possible scenario. Moreover, exposure and education are crucial to the success of autonomous driving.
And that is where ride share platforms like Uber and Lyft, but also Waymo (formerly run by Google) come in. Logically, it will be these companies that will operate self-driving vehicles for ride hailing once they are market ready – presumably by the early 2020s. The benefits for the non-automotive players, usually referred to as the disruptors, or even ‘frenemies’ of the automotive industry, is that they do not have to develop their own vehicles and road-scanning hardware, and the fact that they can make drastic savings on their biggest expense -- paying drivers.
Detroit meets Silicon Valley
Remarkably, it is mainly the (semi) American carmakers that are investing in self-driving R&D – and make progress. Some experts believe GM will be the first to get an autonomous car market-ready. It will release thousands of self-driving electric Chevrolet Bolts already next year together with Lyft, the Californian ride-sharing company of which it owns 9 percent. The vehicles will be used in test fleets based in several states. General Motors has no immediate plans to sell these autonomous vehicles to other customers, incidentally.
FCA struck a deal with Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, for the creation and testing of a fleet of 500 autonomous Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans. The first 100 can already be seen on public roads in California, Michigan and Arizona. Since last spring, Phoenix-area residents can actually take a ride and provide feedback. Waymo says it wants to learn where users want to go, how they communicate with the car and which information and – more importantly – which controls they want.
Interestingly, statistics show that Waymo is way ahead of the other carmakers in terms of real-road testing. Their fleet has driven more than a million kilometres last year. Moreover, the company reports that on average, the driver had to intervene just once every 8,250 km, proof of the relative maturity of the technology. Compared to that, Ford’s ‘autonomous’ results were disappointing, to say the least. A staff change at the top was inevitable. Nonetheless, experts believe that with the $1 billion investment in AI startup Argo and the new management, Ford might very well catch up with its biggest rival in Detroit.
Europeans go intercontinental
Volvo, which believes self-driving cars will not only revolutionise the car-sharing business, but also the luxury car market, invested $300 million in a joint-venture with Uber for the development of fully-automated cars. The plan is to have 100 self-driving XC90s on the roads in Pittsburgh, where the public can take a ‘driverless’ ride for free. The same cars will also be used in Volvo’s hometown Gothenburg, but under a different project that focuses on private usage.
Already in 2016, Volkswagen also invested $300 million in a ride-hailing company, but in this case the Israeli taxi start-up Gett. The companies will share data and work together on future projects, with VW offering on-demand ride services to business customers, while Gett taxi drivers get discounts on VW cars.
But what about the rest of the Europeans? BMW has created its own autonomous ride-sharing platform based in Seattle, called Reach Now. Daimler is reaching out to Uber. PSA has formed a partnership with nuTonomy, which is also collaborating with Lyft, and will start testing in Singapore. Renault-Nissan seem to go it by themselves, but are open to partnerships. One thing is certain: this game of chess is far from being played.