In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced companies testing autonomous vehicles in the U.S. to pause operations temporarily. Safety drivers, along with engineers and developers, were told to stay home until further notice, as shelter-in-place orders made public road testing impossible.
In the interim, these companies — among them Waymo, Cruise, Uber, Lyft, and Aurora — leaned on simulation to continue development of their autonomous vehicle platforms. But Waymo resumed testing its cars this week — a tacit acknowledgment that simulation supplements but can’t replace real-world experience.
Some — but not all — of its competitors intend to follow suit. The pressure to do so hinges on the idea that without real-world testing they can’t demonstrate the safety of their systems to regulators or the public, potentially putting the brakes on service rollouts long after the pandemic ends. Indeed, Ford has pushed the launch of its service from 2021 to 2022. Waymo CEO John Krafcik told the New York Times that the pandemic delayed work by at least two months. And analysts like Boston Consulting Group’s Brian Collie now believe broad commercialization of autonomous vehicles won’t happen before 2025 or 2026, at least three years later than originally anticipated.
Back on the road
Amazon-backed Aurora has resumed road testing “in accordance with county orders,” deploying cars in California’s Santa Clara and Alameda counties. The cars are driven by full-time, mask-wearing operators who adhere to “enhanced” cleaning measures and have explicitly volunteered for the role. Operators who choose to stay home are working with Aurora’s triage and labeling teams.
“The health and safety of our vehicle operators and community members is our priority as we put our vehicles back on the road,” a spokesperson told VentureBeat. “We are taking a measured approach and have implemented the necessary precautions.”
For its part, Zoox is planning to restart operations in Las Vegas through coordination with the “appropriate authorities.” In the coming weeks, the company will establish health and safety protocols while identifying rollout timelines, it says.
Beijing-based Baidu says it resumed activities in California last week with six-foot distancing rules and daily vehicle cleaning and disinfection. The company has also committed to providing “essential” medical supplies to its staff, including masks.
A waiting game
But some companies are taking a more cautious approach, either delaying or developing testing plans in response to changing county and state regulations.
Cruise, Lyft, Argo AI, and Uber said they had nothing to share with respect to the timeline of their testing plans.
Ford partner Argo AI told VentureBeat it’s working with city and state officials in all six cities where it conducts testing ahead of vehicle redeployment. It plans to mandate social distancing and limit interactions between employees, institute cleaning procedures in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, supply personal protective equipment, install physical barriers to separate the left and right seats in its test vehicles, and enhance vehicles’ in-air filtration with a HEPA-certified cabin filter plus two five-stage recirculation devices.
Lyft told VentureBeat it’s following guidance from the CDC and local officials for when it might resume both testing and its employee pilot in Palo Alto. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation and will follow local shelter-in-place orders as we look forward to getting our testing program back on the road when we resume our operations,” a spokesperson said via email.
In the near term, Cruise, which GM has invested in, is devoting resources to a philanthropic effort with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank and San Francisco New Deal to deliver meals to residents in need using self-driving vehicles. The company says safety drivers involved with the partnership are working on a voluntary basis and have been provided protective equipment such as masks.
Pony.ai, which recently teamed up with Yamibuy to deliver goods to customers in Irvine and is delivering meals to “vulnerable communities” in Fremont, has no plans to resume robo-taxi services in May, including its partnerships with Fremont to transport city employees and with Hyundai and Via to shuttle around customers in Irvine. However, it says it’s following guidance from the CDC and the state of California to protect its operators who are in the field. These precautions include:
- Sanitizing vehicles before and after work
- Shifting working time to avoid contact between employees
- Mandating the use of masks and gloves
- Limiting operation facility capacities to 10 people or fewer and vehicles to a single operator
- Conducting body temperature checks on a daily basis at facilities
“We will keep monitoring the situation and carefully plan out how we go back to normalcy,” said a Pony.ai spokesperson. “We continuously improve our autonomous driving technology, along with the essential services we provide.”
Yandex hasn’t resumed testing either, but it says it’s in touch with authorities in areas where it has vehicles so that it can “quickly respond” to changing guidelines and be ready to relaunch. For instance, in Michigan, where the company had started testing ahead of the 2020 North American International Auto Show, its drivers are on paid leave until at least May 28, when the state’s shelter-at-home order is set to expire.
In Moscow and Israel, Yandex says it adopted precautions to continue its robo-taxi operations while minimizing the risk of viral spread. Only one safety driver is allowed in a vehicle per shift and cars are regularly disinfected. Medical checks are mandatory for employees, and Yandex’s Moscow facility has been rearranged in accordance with social distancing rules.
“We hope to expand our on-road autonomous vehicle testing in continued coordination with regulations,” said a Yandex spokesperson. “We will implement the same stringent precautionary [steps] across all of our testing locations as we’re able to restart our global testing.”
Autonomous vehicle companies’ new safety measures come as Uber and Lyft have announced they will require drivers and riders to adhere to a set of infection-preventing standards. Both must wear face coverings and confirm that they haven’t been recently diagnosed with COVID-19, and drivers must agree to keep their vehicles clean and sanitize their hands frequently.
That’s short of the steps Baidu took after the relaunch of its robo-taxi service on March 7 in Changsha, China, where its cars are equipped with an infrared thermometer that takes passengers’ temperatures and where “ambulance-level” UVC (Ultraviolet-C) lamps carry out regular disinfection. UVC lamps, which are powerful enough to cause eye damage, have been shown in preliminary studies to destroy the coronavirus on surfaces within minutes.
Beyond preventing infection, the measures could help ease the fears of safety drivers and riders alike. According to a Statista survey, 49% of respondents in the U.S. said they’d be much less likely to use a ride-hailing service if coronavirus were to spread in their community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ride-sharing companies have reported steep declines in ridership, with Uber customers booking 70% fewer trips in cities hit hard by the coronavirus.
In the process, the safety measures could help right the balance sheets of companies with enormous R&D spend; autonomous vehicle startups burn $1.6 million a month on average, according to Pitchbook. Waymo — which prior to the pandemic was reportedly only generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue — yesterday raised $750 million in anticipation of harsher headwinds. Lyft, Zoox, and autonomous trucking startups Kodiak Robotics and Ike were recently forced to lay off employees. And Zoox hired Qatalyst Partners to explore a potential sale while it attempts to secure capital.