Sun, Nov 17, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Autonomous taxis become a rough ride for Europe

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Taxis are parked near the Brandenburg Gate during a protest against ride-hailing apps in Berlin on April 10.

Photo: EPA-EFE

As recently as March, Daimler AG promised to put 10,000 autonomous taxis on the streets by 2021. However, this week, chairman Ola Kaellenius announced that the company was taking a “reality check” on the project and focusing on self-driving long-haul trucks instead.

It is fine that self-driving cabs are not coming as fast as some expected — and it is even better that Silicon Valley-style big talk appears to be going out of fashion.

Kaellenius’ “reality check” has some solid business reasons: Daimler is cutting costs and cannot commit to a large, capital-intensive project without a clear idea of what kind of first-mover advantage it might confer.

However, mostly, it comes because of a long-obvious technical problem. Making sure self-driving vehicles are not a menace in city traffic is a job that would take more than a couple of years.

Investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of the March last year accident in which a driverless Uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, and it appears Uber Technologies Inc’s cars had been involved in dozens of previous non-fatal incidents in the course of the same testing program.

No one wants to be in the same situation as Uber — so General Motors Co subsidiary Cruise will not be launching self-driving taxis in San Francisco this year, as previously promised, and maybe not next year, either.

There has been lots of news stories about Waymo LLC, an Alphabet Inc subsidiary, launching a self-driving taxi service in Arizona, and in April, it even put an app for it on the Google Play store.

However, in September, Morgan Stanley lowered Waymo’s valuation because of delays in the commercial use of its technology, and last month, Waymo chief executive John Krafcik said driverless delivery trucks could come before a taxi service.

For European automakers, which have to deal with older cities not laid out on a grid, launching autonomous taxi services appears even more daunting than for Americans. They know it is a long way from Tempe to Amsterdam or Rome.

That is one reason Volkswagen AG, a latecomer to self-driving development, is not worried about being overtaken.

Alexander Hitzinger, chief executive of Volkswagen’s autonomous-car subsidiary, said in a recent interview that even an industry pioneer such as Waymo was “a long way away from commercializing the technology” and that Volkswagen’s autonomous vehicles would be developed by the mid-2020s.

That time frame might be no more realistic than the previous hype about big launches this year and next year.

Autonomous-vehicle developers can complain all they want about unpredictable human drivers and pedestrians who are causing all the accidents with their flawlessly superhuman creations, but nobody is going to clear the cities of people to give self-driving vehicles a spotless safety record.

Making sure that, after millions of hours of training, artificial intelligence is finally able to drive like a human after a few hundred hours on the road, is not all that is required for robo-taxis to be viable. There is still the whole matter of figuring out how to reduce rather than increase urban congestion by using vehicles that do not “think” like humans.

It is also dangerous to adopt any kind of specific framework for the launch of automated truck services, even though that is an easier project than taxis, because the routes are fixed.

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