Sometimes it feels like the state of the autonomous-vehicle industry can only be viewed through the reflection of a fun-house mirror. The setbacks appear as seismic shudders. The progress seen as inch-by-inch developments.
Certainly, the shuttering of Argo last October counts as one of the former. The demise of the Ford-and-Volkswagen-backed company has cast a pall across the industry, one that pervades nearly every corner of the AV realm, from funding to talent acquisition.
Hype was, of course, a problem in the early days of Pollyanna predictions of an imminent self-driving future. But the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme, and it’s served to overshadow the incremental progress others have made in Argo’s aftermath.
Case in point: Three companies reached noteworthy milestones in the past month.
On Feb. 3, Waymo said its vehicles had surpassed 1 million miles driven without a human driver behind the wheel, even as a backup. That came little more than two months after the company unveiled its first purpose-built robotaxi, a collaboration with Geely brand Zeekr.
Along similar lines, General Motors-backed Cruise said last week its fleet had achieved the same milestone.
For Cruise, the million-mile mark came a mere 15 months after the company conducted its first driverless ride on San Francisco streets.
Not to be forgotten, self-driving startup Zoox deployed its first robotaxi on public roads this month, carrying employees between two offices in Foster City, Calif., on a round-trip route of about two miles. In Zoox’s case, “driverless” goes without saying: Its vehicles have no traditional controls, such as steering wheels or brake pedals.
For both Waymo and Cruise, the million-mile milepost might provide a snapshot of the companies’ efforts. But there’s another benchmark that might be more indicative of their progress.
In December, Waymo more than doubled the size and scope of its service area in downtown Phoenix. Importantly, it added service between the city’s downtown and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, a potentially lucrative ride-hailing route.
Likewise, Cruise increased the size of its driverless operating area in San Francisco in November from a small section to a scope that encompasses almost the entire city. For now, service is limited to employees; Cruise awaits a permit from regulators to open that area to paying customers.
Companies in the AV space no doubt face a precarious future. Layoffs proliferate. Technology hurdles abound. Business cases appear uncertain. The fractured regulatory landscape changes at a glacial pace. Safety questions remain. A shakeout may be forthcoming.
Amid that complicated backdrop, the work continues.
You may email Pete Bigelow at [email protected]