Science

What’s going on with self-driving cars right now?

Pony.ai is the latest autonomous car company to make headlines for the wrong reasons. It has just lost its permit to test its fleet of autonomous vehicles in California over concerns about the driving record of the safety drivers it employs. It’s a big blow for the company, and highlights the interesting spot the autonomous car industry is in right now. After a few years of very bad publicity, a number of companies have made real progress in getting self-driving cars on the road.

If you’re curious about what Pony.ai and some of the other major outfits are up to, here’s a handy alphabetized guide to some of the key firms working on autonomous vehicles. 

Argo AI 

Ford and Volkswagen’s self-driving car play is taking things to a few different cities. Just last week, it announced it was expanding its driverless operations to Miami and Austin where it will operate during daytime business hours. The service will be initially available to employees, but will soon integrate with Lyft to offer a driverless (with a safety driver) ride-hailing service and Walmart to offer driverless grocery delivery. Argo AI now has one of the most diverse testing pools. As well as Miami and Austin, it is testing in Palo Alto, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Germany.

Aurora

This company bought Uber’s former self-driving division in 2020, and is testing its self-driving Toyota Siennas on the streets of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. It plans to launch a ride-hailing service with Uber in 2024. Though, perhaps more interestingly, it announced this month that it was expanding its self-driving freight pilot with FedEx. Its trucks, which currently operate a 240-mile trip every night between Dallas and Houston with two safety drivers in the cab, will soon start hauling goods between Fort Worth and El Paso, a roughly 600-mile journey. 

There’s less hype about self-driving cars than there used to be, but the industry keeps pushing forward. Cruise

Cruise 

Owned by General Motors, Cruise has been quietly successful. It is offering rider-only autonomous trips to the public in San Francisco and is expanding its driverless Walmart delivery service in Phoenix. Its parent company is seemingly happy with the progress it’s making; GM expects to spend $2 billion on the autonomous vehicle subsidiary in 2022.

Motional

A joint venture between Aptiv and Hundai, Motional is offering free rides to the public, albeit with a safety-driver behind the wheel. It is currently testing in downtown Las Vegas, where it plans to launch a commercial driverless ride-hailing service with Lyft in 2023.

Pony.ai

Its California dreams are not looking great. The aforementioned permit the DMV just revoked was for it to test its fleet of 41 autonomous vehicles with safety drivers behind the wheel (it currently employs 71 drivers in this role). It lost the permit over issues with the driving records of three employees, and seemingly the process of approval that allowed these operators to monitor its cars. Its license to test its autonomous vehicles without a safety driver was suspended in November last year, after a collision with a lane divider and a street sign. Things appear to be going a bit better for the Chinese company in its home base: It recently secured permits to operate in Beijing and Guangzhou. 

Waymo 

This well-established firm is owned by Google-parent company Alphabet, and is expanding its Waymo One ride-hailing test service in Phoenix, Arizona. Its vehicles are now operating in both the East Valley and the city’s downtown area. It also just started offering fully autonomous rides to employees in San Francisco. The service has also demonstrated its practicality: One rider had taken more than 400 trips as of October last year. 

Zoox 

Bought by Amazon in 2020, Zoox is expanding from California and Las Vegas to new environs. It plans to start operating in Seattle, home of its parent company, this year explicitly to test its sensors in wet weather. Most autonomous vehicles are operating in sunny states, so it’s exciting to see the companies start testing in more diverse climates. Like Cruise, Zoox hopes to eventually employ a bidirectional vehicle that has no space for a driver at all. 

Ultimately, despite the still relatively frequent set-backs, the autonomous vehicle industry has been making quiet gains over the past year or two. We’re still a long way from ubiquitous driverless cars, but the technology is being tested in more places, in more ways, and with less drama. What a time to be a robot.




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