No More Robotaxis? 2020, The Reality Check for OEMs

Several major OEMs have recently announced scaling back of their shared or automated mobility ventures. Ford and Volkswagen are giving up investments in “robotaxis” – the CEO of their software partner, Argo, was quoted saying he “hates the word” anyway – and similar services operated by German automakers are withdrawing from various markets or shutting down altogether, after overextending themselves during the last 18 months.

Two separate trends seem to contribute to that movement. The first one, car ownership is still growing worldwide, albeit modestly – roughly 1% per year over the last ten years in Germany, for example – while sales of new cars is slumping. It is important to differentiate these two: while new car sales affect the revenues of OEMs, and may indicate changes in consumption patterns, car ownership rates indicate people’s attitude vis-à-vis car ownership better. In that sense, we see a continued attachment to personal car ownership, a cultural phenomenon that is much more difficult to displace or even disrupt than what some may have thought previously. Hence, the dreaded “peak car” that will relegate the iconic 20th century consumer good to museums may not materialize for a while.

The second trend has to do with an observation made time and again: OEMs are not naturally good at running mobility services: their business is making cars. As one bank analyst put it, no one expects Airbus or Boeing to run an airline. Why should it be any different with car OEMs? Thinking about the prospects of automation, it became commonplace for large industrial players to partner with specialized software developers to develop the automated driving system. That may result in a great product, but it does not give create a market and a business plan when it comes to the AVs themselves. As it turned out, the main business plan, which was to use these cars as part of large car-sharing services or sell them to existing mobility operators, ran into a some roadblocks: OEMs found themselves competing with already existing mobility operators in a difficult market; and putting an AV safely on the road is a much more daunting task than once thought. As 2019 comes to a close, we have yet to see an actual commercial “robotaxi” deployment outside of test runs.

This second trend puts a large question mark on the short and medium term financial viability of investments in “robotaxis” and automated mobility operations, generally. OEMs and their partners, looking for ways to put all those vehicle automation efforts to profitable use, look at other markets, such as heavy, non-passenger road and industrial vehicles. Nevertheless, no one seems poised to completely exit the automated passenger mobility market; they all keep a foot in the door, continuing their tests and “gathering more data,” in order to allegedly understand the mobility needs of road users. Beyond these noble intentions, however, there is an exit plan: if all else fails, they can monetize their data sets to data hungry software developers.

In the end, this comes back to a point frequently addressed on this blog, that of safety. Technological advances in automation (broadly speaking) are bringing increased safety to existing cars, and they will continue to do so. We might have become overly fixated by the golden goose of the “Level 5” robotaxi (or even Level 3), which may or may not come in the next ten years, neglecting the low-hanging fruit. While laugh at our ancestors dreaming about flying cars for the year 2000, our future selves scoff at us for chasing robotaxis by 2020.