Amazon on Monday debuted its self-driving robotaxi electric vehicle it intends to use for ride-hailing services. This is coming days after AutoX launched the first fully autonomous robotaxi in China.
The driverless car was unveiled by Amazon’s Zoox, a startup it acquired in June as it pushes to attain its goal of running a transport company.
It follows the recent push, masterminded by COVID-19 pandemic, to seek alternatives to manned vehicles.
The pandemic ushered in safety measures around the world that involve social distancing, forcing the ride-hailing industry to shift operation to deliveries or stay out of business.
Before now, there have been a lot of regulatory bottlenecks hindering driverless vehicle manufacturers from putting their vehicles on the roads. In 2018, a pedestrian was struck dead by an autonomous vehicle operated by Uber. The cause of the pedestrian’s death, as determined by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was “inadequate safety culture” and “deficiencies in state and federal regulation,” and it thus fueled the tight approach of regulators on approval of unmanned vehicles.
Apart from the challenge of navigating through the roads, cybersecurity concerns involving the threat of autonomous vehicles (AVs) being hacked heightened the fears of both the NTSB and U.S. lawmakers working on laws that will govern the entire autonomous vehicle ecosystem, and hindered the automakers’ quest for approval.
In East Asia, where China is leading the quest for autonomous vehicles, it has been the same regulatory story as questions about the vehicles navigational capabilities keep regulators in doubt and consequently, stall the push by driverless automakers to get licensed to operate fully autonomous vehicles.
In February, the China’s National Development and Reform Commission and ten other governmental agencies of the Strategies for Innovation and Development of Intelligent Vehicles (the Strategies) released a two-step plan for autonomous vehicle development in China.
The plan includes first, a framework for technological innovation, industrial ecology, infrastructure, regulation, and network security in the autonomous vehicle market; second, the aim to fully establish an ecosystem for AVs from 2035 to 2050.
While the plans offer autonomous vehicles a path to a future in China’s booming auto market, it reels on setbacks emanating from many areas of driverless responsibility. For instance, the Ministry of Transport issued in 2018, the Administrative Rules on Intelligent and Connected Vehicle Road Testing, stipulating that autonomous vehicles are permitted only in designated areas in China for road testing. And there is also a policy of insurance coverage of about $700,000 to cover cases of accidents.
However, despite the regulatory and technological challenges in both AV leading markets, there has been a recent shift indicating progress. The pandemic has emphasized the need for autonomous vehicles now more than before, and it seems to have eased the tightfistedness of regulators on matters of AV concerns.
AutoX’s launch of its robotaxi early this month defied the rule which mandated driverless vehicle operators to have a safety driver on the wheels while testing or using the vehicle around town. It thus underscores advancement in technology and software engineering that could get the authorities to bend the rules.
Zoox on the other hand came in a unique way that distinguishes it from other autonomous vehicles. It’s a carriage-style car, which means that passengers face each other and there’s no space for a driver or passenger seat, because it has no steering wheel.
With space for four passengers, Zoox has the capabilities of bidirectional driving which allows it to change directions without the need to reverse and navigate in compact spaces. It also has an array of cameras, radar and lidar sensors, mounted on all four corners of the car, to eliminate blind spots and give it a 270-degree field of view on the road. The car can travel up to 75 miles per hour and can run up to 16 hours on a single charge. It has airbags for each of the four seats.
With each new autonomous vehicle rolled out, there is a significant tech breakthrough erasing regulatory concerns and filling a tech gap.
While the approval of full commercial operation of autonomous vehicles seems a long shot, the progress so far spells doom for many career drivers in the ride-hailing industry. With the number of companies indicating interest in operating robotaxi growing, cab service is poised to be another victim of robotics.
Alphabet’s Waymo, GM’s Cruise, Uber and Tesla among other emerging companies are all in a mission to deliver approved driverless robotaxis as soon as possible. So the ride-hailing industry is about to witness a shift that will save it some troubles.
In November, Uber and Lyft narrowly survived being shut down in California over the classification of its drivers as independent contractors, thanks to prop.22. Commercial robotaxis means that ridesharing companies using the gig business model will have not to worry anymore about minimum wage and employee benefits.