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Saturday, February 4, 2023

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Self-Driving Cars Are Further Out Than Expected

by Ed Burke and Kelly Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.


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Driver-assist technologies advance as driverless systems fall behind

Back in 2019, Ford and VW had first said they would invest together in Argo AI developing robo-taxis, self-driving vehicles that could operate in a ride-hailing service without human drivers. At that time, Argo AI was also developing self-driving delivery vehicles and had worked on related programs in US cities. The joint venture allowed Ford and VW to share the hefty price tag of developing self-driving cars.

In October 2022, Ford and Volkswagen announced that they were shutting down their joint development in Argo AI to develop self-driving cars.

Ford said that it had concluded that profitability of the large-scale commercialization of self-driving cars was further out than expected, and that Argo AI had been unable to attract new investors. “The company is still optimistic about a future for fully self-driving cars, but profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off, and we won’t necessarily have to create that technology ourselves,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said in a statement.

Instead, Ford will focus on simpler driver-assist technologies that have proven easier to develop and bring to market. Ford offers a driver-assist technology called BlueCruise that is positioned as a rival to Tesla’s Autopilot software.

Volkswagen is pretty much doing the same. “Our goal is to offer our customers the most powerful functions at the earliest possible time and to set up our development as cost-effectively as possible,” VW CEO Oliver Blume said in a statement.

Argo AI was founded in 2016 and with the investments from Ford and VW in 2019, the company grew to about 2,000 employees in 2022.

In a statement confirming Argo AI shutting down, the company said “Many of the employees will continue work on automated driving technology with either Ford or Volkswagen, while employment for others will unfortunately come to an end.”


You Need Deep Pockets

As it turns out, developing self-driving cars is incredibly expensive. Ford said that it was taking a $2.7 billion loss on its investment in Argo AI. General Motors reported that their self-driving subsidiary Cruise has lost $1.4 billion in 2022. Even the industry leader, Alphabet’s Waymo has taken on outside investors to help cover their heavy costs.

Look who is jumping back into self-driving cars: Uber will partner with Motional to offer driverless deliveries and rides. Uber Technologies Inc. inked a deal with Motional Inc. (a joint venture between Hyundai and Aptiv), rekindling its vision of a self-driving taxi fleet nearly two years after it sold its autonomous vehicle division. The companies signed an expanded agreement that is set to last 10 years.


Driverless Airport Shuttles

In October, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Navya, a leading French autonomous mobility company, held a demonstration of two-vehicle shuttle platooning at the JFK Aqueduct Parking Lot, the first of its kind at a North American airport. The three-day demonstration of two eight-passenger electric autonomous vehicle (AV) shuttles in a platoon simulated how AV technology could serve passengers in the future.

AV technology in public transit is envisioned to move passengers safely and efficiently in an airport environment. For example, one demonstration showed the shuttle coming to a complete stop when a person stepped in its path, and then resuming once the path had cleared.

Platooning is also an important feature for AVs as it allows for multiple autonomous vehicles to travel in unison, significantly increasing the number of passengers who can be transported in a single movement. In the future, AVs may be used for short connections that passengers typically make on foot, such as first-mile/last-mile trips. For example, AVs could get passengers to a commuter rail station, a distant airport rental car facility, or from AirTrain stations to the furthest ends of long-term parking lots.

The autonomous vehicles will be operated by an on-board safety operator at all times and supervised by Navya’s control center in Michigan. The vehicles have eight lidar sensors and the pilot was conducted in an area of the parking lot closed to the general public.

“This demonstration is an opportunity to evaluate and test new and emerging technology to improve our customer experience,” said Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole. “We continue to see the importance of offering customers innovative and world-class services in response to their needs.”

“The Port Authority has been laser-focused on cutting-edge technological advancements, and we are happy to be participating in this first-of-its-kind exploration of autonomous vehicle use in an airport application,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton. “Our innovation group is also in touch with other transit and airport agencies around the country to establish best practices in the use of autonomous vehicles.”

“The demonstration represents the first platooning test at an American airport,” said Navya CEO Sophie Desormière. “We are excited to be a part of it as our expertise in AV technology includes solutions for the transportation of people and goods.”

This pilot follows a successful demonstration earlier this year of platooning and lane-keeping technology on retrofitted buses in the Port Authority’s Exclusive Bus Lane (XBL), which is used to expedite bus travel into and out of the Lincoln Tunnel during rush hours. The Port Authority and New Jersey Transit plan to continue working together on using AV technology to improve capacity of the lane.

Ed and Kelly Burke are respectively Chairman of the Board and Senior Marketing Manager at fuel distributor Dennis K. Burke Inc. They can be reached at 617-884-7800 or ed.burke@burkeoil.com and kelly.burke@burkeoil.com.


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