Like many industries, the automated vehicle industry faced setbacks due to this year’s many COVID-19 related local and regional lockdowns. In the spring, as the first wave of the virus spread, many companies had to stop testing to protect the human safety drivers and, in the case of Bay Area companies, follow local “shelter in place” orders. One partial exception to the rule was Waymo, which has been testing fully automated vehicles without safety drivers in Arizona, was able to keep some of those fully automated vehicles operating, since there were no drivers involved.
Beyond shutting down on-the-road testing, the AV industry has seen other COVID-related fallout. Due to the pandemic Ford delayed the launch of their robotaxi service to 2022, while GM’s Cruise unit laid off 8% of their staff in May. Yet desire to invest in the AV industry appears to remain strong. Zoox, which had (at least temporary) laid off its safety drivers in April, was bought by Amazon in June. Over the summer companies have begun to announce new testing sites – with Aurora testing automated semis and cars in Dallas-Fort Worth, and a Chinese AV developer, AutoX, launching a test around PayPal’s headquarters in San Jose, CA. Closer to home, Russian AV developer Yandex announced it would begin testing in Ann Arbor, their first test in the US, while May Mobility’s AV service in Grand Rapids will resume service at the end of August.
Indeed, two other developments in Michigan show that AV and mobility-related work is still an important focus, even during periods of major upheaval. In July the state of Michigan launched the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, which is led by the “chief mobility officer.” The office’s structure and mission is based off work done by Detroit’s Office of Mobility Innovation – and hopes to recreate that office’s success at a state level. Part of the office’s mission will be to consolidate the work of 135 different councils, boards, and commissions spread out across 17 state agencies and departments – all of which have been working on some element of mobility. Earlier this month a second major announcement pointed to just how dedicated the state seems to be toward new mobility tech. On August 13th, a public-private partnership, named “CAVNUE,” was announced, with its goal being the creation of a 40-mile long testing corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor. The corridor would be designed for testing both connected and automated vehicles as well as infrastructure. If this project is successful, it would be a major boon for the many companies in Southeast Michigan – and would signal a move to greater public testing of emerging mobility technology beyond more controlled environments like MCity.
One lesson of the past year has been that the future can change very quickly, making rosy predictions of future AV successes harder to believe than in “the before time.” But these developments seem to show the AV industry finding its way forward. The future promise (and challenge) of AVs hasn’t diminished, even in our rapidly changing present.