Waymo, Uber, GM’s Cruise, Aurora, Argo AI, and Pony.ai are among the companies that have suspended driverless vehicle programs in the hopes of limiting contact between drivers and riders. It’s a direct response to the ongoing health crisis caused by COVID-19, which has sickened over 250,000 and killed more than 10,000 people around the world.
On March 26, Lyft said it would cease all of its autonomous vehicles testing for the time being. “Our priority is the safety of our employees and passengers,” a spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “We have temporarily paused the operation of our employee pilot as well as our … testing in Palo Alto, California.”
Waymo announced that it would pause its Waymo One ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona and autonomous car testing on public California roads. Initially, the Alphabet subsidiary pledged to limit Waymo One rides to its fully driverless cars, which don’t require human operators behind the wheel. But on Thursday, Waymo said it would suspend all service until April 7 in the “interests of the health and safety of … riders, trained drivers, and [the] entire [Waymo] team.”
“We’re temporarily suspending all Waymo service,” wrote the company in a statement, adding that it has committed to providing funds to enable its partners to compensate staff assigned to work their normal hours if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or are quarantined. “You’ll hear from us when you can ride again.”
Only a subset of Waymo One’s over 1,500 monthly active riders were being matched with fully driverless cars, it’s worth pointing out. To become eligible to ride in one, customers had to join Waymo’s Early Rider pilot program, which has a waitlist.
Uber halted autonomous vehicle operations on March 16, and the company told VentureBeat that the ATG team continues to execute on projects from home with offline virtual simulation tools like Autonomous Visualization System and VerCD. Uber had briefly resumed testing in San Francisco, starting March 10, over a month after it received a California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) license. And it was previously operating fleets manually in Dallas, Toronto, and Washington, D.C.
“Our goal is to help flatten the curve of community spread,” said Uber Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) CEO Eric Meyhofer in a statement. “Following recent guidance from local and state officials in areas where we operate our self-driving vehicles, we are pausing all test track and on-road testing until further notice.”
“The safety and well-being of our employees and our community is our top priority. Out of an abundance of caution, we have asked Cruisers across all our locations who can conduct their work remotely to do so until further notice.” –@ArdenMHoffman1, Chief People Officer
— Cruise (@Cruise) March 9, 2020
Cruise’s chief people officer Arden Hoffman said the company has suspended operations and closed all San Francisco facilities for the time being, with a plan to reopen them in three weeks. (The company confirmed that it plans to pay autonomous vehicle operators during this period.) One of the programs affected is a ride-hailing pilot in San Francisco called Cruise Anywhere that allows Cruise employees to get around mapped areas using an app.
Aurora VP of operations Greg Zanghi told VentureBeat that Aurora’s entire team — including its test drivers — is working from home and that everyone will continue to get paid. In lieu of on-the-road tests, the company will use digital systems like its Virtual Test Suite to fuel development and testing efforts.
“We recognize that this is an entirely unprecedented situation with unique challenges and we all need to come together and support one another,” said Zanghi. “While we continue to strive for work excellence, families come first and we are encouraging everyone to do what is needed to take care of their families. Our top priority is keeping our community safe and healthy, while also keeping our teams feeling supported, motivated, and connected.”
As for Argo AI, a spokesperson told VentureBeat that while it hasn’t experienced a “significant impact” from COVID-19, it has taken steps to allow employees to work from home, including pausing car testing operations at all of its locations. Argo was conducting tests in Pittsburgh, where it’s based, as well as in Austin, Texas; Miami, Florida; Palo Alto, California; Washington, D.C.; and Dearborn, Michigan.
“Argo AI places the highest priority on ensuring our employees and contractors have a safe, secure, and healthy work environment,” said the spokesperson. “Our safety operators are going on paid leave, effective tomorrow, and we’ll continue to monitor the situation and adjust accordingly.”
Pony.ai decided to suspend its public PonyPilot service for three weeks starting March 16, along with its autonomous vehicle commuter pilot for the Fremont, California local government. The company recently launched both programs following a multi-month robotaxi service in Irvine, California — dubbed BotRide — in partnership with Hyundai (which provided KONA Electric SUVs) and Via (which supplied the passenger booking and assignment logistics).
Tech giant Baidu has also ceased all self-driving activities in California, following Santa Clara County guidelines.
Self-driving company Zoox said it is halting testing in San Francisco and Las Vegas until April 7. All drivers will be paid during the shutdown, according to a spokesperson.
“As always, the safety and health of our team and the community are paramount. Therefore, in accordance with the Public Health Order, we have suspended all vehicle operations in San Francisco and Las Vegas until April 7,” said the spokesperson. “Our drivers will continue to be paid during this time. Along with everyone else, we will continue to evaluate this challenging situation as it evolves.”
Self-driving delivery vehicle startup Nuro also said it would suspend all operations in Texas and Arizona.
Yandex says it is “prioritizing safety” throughout the situation. All employees, including the self-driving team, have been told to work remotely for now. The company’s offices remain open, but most of the self-driving team is now working from home. And though Yandex’s testing locations have not been significantly affected by COVID-19, the company says it’s following local guidelines in all areas it operates in, including taking specific precautions to properly disinfect the cars and facilities based on practices it uses for ride-hailing and car-sharing services.
1/5 In the interest of the health and safety of our riders and the entire Waymo community, we’re pausing our Waymo One service with trained drivers in Metro Phoenix for now as we continue to watch COVID-19 developments.
— Waymo (@Waymo) March 17, 2020
Concern over the spread of COVID-19 was the chief motivator behind the industry-wide suspensions in autonomous vehicle testing. Waymo said it made its decision “in the interests of the health and safety of our riders and the entire Waymo community.” This follows at least one incident of a human safety driver in a Waymo vehicle refusing to pick up a passenger because a local case of COVID-19 had been reported. (Waymo continues to pick up passengers as part of its Waymo One program in Phoenix, with a small number of completely driverless vehicles.)
In related news, Uber and Lyft today said they would stop allowing customers to order shared rides in order to help contain the virus. Uber also suggested that drivers roll down windows to “improve ventilation” and asked riders to wash their hands before and after entering cars.
In the U.S. at the time of writing, the total number of coronavirus cases stood at 4,226, with 75 deaths, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.