The Level 4 robotaxi dream seems just around the corner, but the business side of things has to be solved as well.

, Argo AI Is Testing Driverless Cars in These Cities
Argo AI

  • Autonomous tech developer Argo AI is now testing Ford Escape Hybrid vehicles in Austin and Miami, with no safety driver behind the wheel.
  • The step represents a significant milestone toward the commercial rollout of Level 4 autonomous tech on US streets.
  • Waymo and Cruise have also recently started testing Level 4 vehicles on US roads, though in limited downtown areas and without paying customers.

    Argo AI became the latest autonomous developer to begin conducting driverless tests in the US, kicking off trials in Austin and Miami. The company is one of several approaching the commercialization of Level 4 autonomy, with the launch of driverless tests in real world traffic being one of the most consequential milestones toward this goal. The vehicles being used in the two cities are Ford Escape Hybrids, while Argo has also been testing Volkswagen ID. Buzz vans in Europe, under somewhat different testing conditions.

    As with Cruise and Waymo, both of which have also commenced tests of their own prototypes with no driver behind the wheel, Argo AI is only letting its employees be passengers at the moment, so the test vehicles are not accepting paying passengers.

    It’s worth noting that our robotaxi future is certainly inching forward, with a quick succession of small prototype fleets traveling on real roads in challenging urban traffic. Argo itself was founded not all that long ago, in 2016, so proceeding to test driverless prototypes on the road in about six years is a significant achievement for the autonomous tech developer.

    “Argo is first to go driverless in two major American cities, safely operating amongst heavy traffic, pedestrians and bicyclists in the busiest of neighborhoods,” said Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO of Argo AI. “From day one, we set out to tackle the hardest miles to drive—in multiple cities—because that’s where the density of customer demand is, and where our autonomy platform is developing the intelligence required to scale it into a sustainable business.”

    As tempting as it may be to imagine driverless taxis being just a couple years away from being a common sight in every city, jurisdiction-specific regulations in the US are just one of the factors constraining the commercial roll-out of Level 4 robotaxis. The companies testing their respective driverless vehicles all had to obtain permits from individual states and cities, and are allowed to operate the vehicles under a long list of requirements.

    One of the other major components is the commercialization of driverless vehicles, not all of which are intended to carry passengers. Argo plans to offer its Autonomy Platform, as it calls it, to other businesses to operate as delivery vehicles, ride-sharing cars, or taxis with a predetermined route. This third option, often called ride-pooling, is what Volkswagen plans to offer through its MOIA service scheduled to launch in Germany in 2024 using Argo’s autonomous driving tech. But MOIA it’s just one of the commercial partners for Argo’s autonomy solutions—the challenge is finding others to operate fleets of autonomous vehicles with a business case behind them.

    Argo, Cruise, and Waymo have largely proven that, given years of development work and almost unlimited budgets, a car with no one behind the wheel can drive itself around dense downtown areas. Now the challenge is to prove that it can be cheaper to operate than paying a human driver.

    Argo is working on the business side of using autonomous vehicles as well.

    “Whether streamlining daily fleet maintenance through Depot Manager or orchestrating ride and delivery requests through Fleet Scheduler, Argo customers can access all of the capabilities they need to efficiently operate autonomous vehicles as part of their business,” the company says.

    The launch of tests of driverless vehicles in real-world traffic in US cities over the past few months by Argo and its competitors demonstrates that Level 4 autonomy is becoming not a question of technology, as it was just a few years ago, but a question of commercial operation in way that is profitable for the company employing autonomous vehicles. After all, it’s one thing to engineer and deploy driverless vehicles that can be hailed with an app in a given city—a fantastically expensive enterprise for each developer involved—and quite another for a third party business to actually use these vehicles without losing money in the process.

    That will be the step where where robotaxis will begin to compete with human drivers, whether they’re delivery drivers or contractors working for ride-hailing apps. And that step is still some time away but is now close enough to be visible.

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