Around the world, automotive trials of Level 4 technologies are working to change how the industry uses and interacts with the vehicle. Today, many of these trials are investigating how L4 can be used to develop and scale a variety of commercial self-driving services tailored for consumers. In realizing the benefits and profitability opportunities of these services, legacy OEMs and newer technology firms were equally drawn to them. With both sides now co-existing in the L4 trial space, who will be the first to pass the trial stage and fully commercialize Level 4 autonomy?
L4 Autonomy Today
Since they began, the scope of many L4 trials has greatly expanded – with some players imminently targeting commercialization and working with governments to make it happen. Pony.ai, for example, was recently awarded a permit to operate 100 autonomous vehicles (AVs) as traditional taxis in Nansha, Guangzhou and collect fares for rides in the area. The permit allows these robotaxis to be booked and paid for through the PonyPilot+ app and operate between 8:30 AM and 22:30 PM. Pony.ai now intends to scale its service further across Guangzhou to gain a wider consumer base.
Operating an expansive, profitable, service is the goal shared by the companies conducting similar trials today. For OEMs, such a service would provide new growth and partnership opportunities, while presenting an entry point for tech giants seeking to leverage the automotive industry to expand.
OEM #1: GM (Cruise)
Following its acquisition by GM in 2016, Cruise has both motivated and enabled the OEM’s consumer-facing autonomous activities. At the center of its activity today is Origin, a purpose-built AV co-developed with GM and Honda designed to serve a variety of use cases and built for high-volume manufacturing and deployment worldwide.
Cruise’s first driverless trials began in November 2021 – offering free rides around San Francisco to its employees as well as customers who had registered for one on its website. Following this first phase, and the public opening of the trial in February 2022, Cruise received a Phase-I driverless Passenger Service Deployment permit from the CPUC in June 2022. The permit allowed Cruise’s service to operate daily, between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM, and begin charging for select rides.
In its Q1 earnings call, GM amounted its estimated spending on Cruise to $2 billion for 2022 – indicating its confidence in the company and its ability to scale. Through this investment, the company is now planning to scale its robotaxi service to Austin, TX and Phoenix, AZ before the end of 2022. In 2023, it will then take the Origin into mass production and commence service operations in Dubai. While these targets and their deadlines appear ambitious, the service’s successes to date and backing from GM put Cruise on the right path towards commercializing at scale.
Tech Giant #1: Alphabet (Waymo)
Following its earlier testing of autonomous technologies, Alphabet (then called Google) launched its self-driving technology subsidiary Waymo in December 2016 with the aim to provide safe, easy mobility for people and things. Unlike Cruise, Waymo did not set out to develop its own commercial AV, favoring instead to develop its own autonomous technologies that could be fitted onto other vehicles. Taking this approach early on allowed the brand to develop an ecosystem of industry partnerships that would help it achieve its goal.
Waymo inherited the vehicle fleet used in Alphabet’s earlier tests, which included a purpose-built AV prototype, and leveraged it for its own tests. This foundation allowed the company to begin testing and scale more quickly, sourcing 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in partnership with FCA (then Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, now Stellantis) before starting public trials in April 2017. This first phase, called the Early Rider Program, began in Phoenix, AZ and invited residents to sign up for complimentary rides in its AV fleet. Each vehicle had a safety driver behind the wheel and was equipped with Waymo Driver – an autonomous driving system comprised of the vehicle’s sensor suite and on-board logic software, alongside its supporting cloud data and infrastructure. Scaling further through 2017, Waymo announced new partnerships with Avis Budget Group, Lyft, AutoNation, and Intel; tested its technologies against winter weather conditions in the suburbs of Detroit; and commenced driverless trials in Phoenix.
Since then, Waymo has grown rapidly – strengthening its fleet through new partnerships with FCA and Jaguar Land Rover, while launching its Waymo One pilot robotaxi service for Phoenix in 2018. In 2019, it partnered with Renault and Nissan to investigate bringing its service to Japan and France, and then signed a similar agreement with Volvo Cars. In 2020, Waymo entered into partnerships with Walmart and UPS to conduct autonomous deliveries before launching Waymo Via – its autonomous trucking subsidiary. Before the end of the year, the new subsidiary secured long-term partnerships with Daimler Trucks, J.B. Hunt, C.H. Robinson, and more.
Any one of these collaborations would support a new player looking to grow in the L4 space, though Waymo’s approach provided Alphabet with a clear entry point and renewed opportunities for growth. In bringing Waymo One to San Francisco and Los Angeles, with new trials in New York and its international expansion plans, Alphabet appears to have built a solid roadmap towards scaled commercialization – though the continued realization and success of its many partnerships will be paramount to achieving this.
The road to commercialization
Ultimately, commercializing L4 at scale is a huge task for tech giants and OEMs alike to fulfil and will not be achieved overnight by either side. Likewise, any company looking to test, trial, and run a truly global L4 service will have to overcome a number of hurdles. However, the achievements, ambition, and scalability shown by Cruise and Waymo together demonstrate the progress being made towards integrating L4 autonomy more closely into global consumer livelihoods – especially so as an accessible, familiar, service.
The trials discussed in this article form just a small part of a wider landscape. Today, a significant number of pilot services involving L4 vehicles are being conducted globally, and have been thoroughly profiled in our Autonomous Guide for L4+ Vehicles & Trials. In this 2022 report, our ADAS & Autonomy experts clarify the segments these pilots are targeting, while identifying the technologies utilized and partners involved. An accompanying Excel document provides a data-driven deep dive into each one, with filters provided for the service category, technology, location, and more.