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ROBO-TAXIS - The drive for autonomous is real BUT who are the big players threatening the industry 

As if ever growing competition and congestion wasn’t enough stress for taxi drivers to endure already, they now have the worry of becoming obsolete within the industry.

Over the past couple of years, you may have come across the endless amounts of big tech and automotive firms screaming from the rooftops that “driverless taxis are coming, and we’re going to be the leading supplier of a fully autonomous fleet”.

Although many autonomous taxi critics say a driverless taxi service isn’t really viable in many of the world’s big cities, the threat from RoboCabs is very real and is an industry that could reach a valuation of over a trillion shiny pounds.

So let’s take a look at some of the big players desperately trying to lead an industry where a vehicle will ‘Go, Stop and Drop’ at the push of a button.

First up on the auto car walk is WAYMO.

Waymo is a self-driving technology development company which originated as a project of Google. It has since become a stand-alone subsidiary.

(Image credit: Waymo)

In April 2017 they started a limited trial of a driverless taxi service in Phoenix Arizona. It then went on to launch a commercial autonomous taxi service called “Waymo One” for residents in the Phoenix metropolitan area in 2018, which is now one year old.

(Image credit: Waymo)

To celebrate that milestone, the company announced the step toward wider expansion by making its app available in Apple’s App Store. The app has already been available to download from Google’s play store since April last year.

(Image credit: Waymo)

Chief Product Officer, Dan Chu, said: “One year ago, Waymo became the first and only company in the world to launch a public self-driving ride-hailing service.

“We now have thousands of people using it in their everyday lives across the Metro Phoenix area and have enjoyed seeing how they rely on the Waymo Driver to get them where they need to be whether that’s work, the grocery store, or a fun night out.

“In the last year, we’ve accomplished a lot and learned even more. Through customer surveys and feedback, we hear a lot about what our riders expect from self-driving technology and how we can continue to improve our service to meet those expectations.”

The firm has created partnerships with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ride-sharing app Lyft, Autonation and Jaguar Land Rover.

Next up is controversial ride-sharing company Uber, who are no stranger to the very real problems surrounding the safety of driverless vehicles.

In March 2018, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was killed by an Uber driverless vehicle which failed to stop as she was crossing a road in Tempe, Arizona.

(Image credit: Uber Technologies Inc)

The vehicle was travelling at a speed of 39 MPH. An investigation into the cause of the fatal incident revealed the vehicle's code was unable to recognise the victim as a pedestrian because she was not at an obvious designated crossing.

The vehicle’s software design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians. The vehicle was fully autonomous at the time of the incident, although there was a human driver behind the wheel.

An internal camera revealed the Uber worker was looking down and away from the road moments before the accident, unaware of Herzberg’s presence before it was too late.

(Image credit: Uber Technologies Inc)

Despite this, the firm believes autonomous vehicles have the potential to make roads safer and transportation affordable for everyone.

The company’s choice of vehicle is a Volvo - known for having a strong safety track record. The vehicle is modified to integrate the sensors and software that helps support their software.

In June 2019, Uber announced a third generation version of its self-driving car development with Volvo. The new XC90 SUV will now be built to fit the firm’s technology at factory level rather than retrofitting every vehicle after manufacturers production.

Dara Khosrowshahi, the firm’s CEO, speaking on safety, said: “At Uber, we believe that technology has the power to ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion. This is why we introduced the original Uber service in 2010.

“We believe that introducing self-driving vehicles to the Uber network could make transportation safer, more efficient, and more affordable for people around the world.

“We also believe that our efforts to develop self-driving technology are consistent with our core value to Stand for Safety.”

Next we take a look at a firm closer to home - Addison Lee Group, who recently announced that they had been selected to lead a £15 million UK government-backed consortium to launch autonomous vehicle services in London by 2021.

(Image credit: Addison Lee Group)

The consortium, which also includes Oxbotica, DG Cities, Nominet and Immense Simulations, won the funding from the government’s Connected and Autonomous Vehicle 4 (CAV4) programme to introduce 15 autonomous vehicles in the capital from 2021.

Paul McCabe, the firm’s Corporate Development Director said: “The Addison Lee-led consortium will help quickly realise many of the benefits we envisage in bringing autonomous vehicles onto the streets of London - better mobility for it’s people, enhanced public transport, cleaner air and safer streets.”

The firm, alongside Oxbotica (the British leader in self-driving vehicle software), recently completed 3D street mapping of the capital’s Canary Wharf area. Oxbotica will use the data collected to help understand the contents of street signs, and the meanings of the lane markings on the road to enable the vehicle to be as knowledgeable as a local resident about the complexities of each street.

The company will repeat this process many times, and at different times, improving the understanding of how the streets change in different lighting conditions, weather and seasons of the year.

Andy Borland, Addison Lee Group’s CEO, said: “With its campus-style arrangement and high number of commuters, Canary Wharf is the perfect place to begin our mapping of London with Oxbotica and a possible location for new Addison Lee Groups services.”

Greame Smith, CEO of Oxbotica, added: “This mapping AI is another step towards making autonomous vehicles a reality in complex urban environments such as Canary Wharf.

“This partnership shows the trust we have gained to deploy our integrated autonomous vehicle and fleet management software in even the most challenging of environments.

"We look forward to bringing autonomous vehicles into mainstream use on the streets of London in the very near future.”

So to conclude, there seems to be a huge appetite for autonomous taxis from some of the world’s most ambitious companies, with millions of pounds being invested and thousands of man hours dedicated to producing a fleet of vehicles which are solely reliant on technology and artificial intelligence.

In addition to those we’ve already looked at, there are a number of other giant firms also focused on developing their own autonomous vehicle fleets, including Hyundai Motor Group who recently announced a multi-billion pound commitment to an electric driverless car project. Others include Tesla, Ford, General Motors and Russian ride-hailing firm Yandex.

The idea of having thousands of driverless taxis patrolling big city streets will no doubt be shot down by those who just can’t see how it could possibly work. But the question that we all need to consider is; why on earth would all these companies be investing so much time and money in a service that in reality seems so far-fetched?


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