You May Be Able to Own a Self-Driving Car After All
Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot, Volvo says, Ride Pilot will be able to navigate highways without driver supervision, which means “you can eat, you can watch a movie, you can read a book” behind the wheel, according to Martin Kristensson, the head of mobility and autonomous driving at Volvo Cars. (He strongly advises drivers to resist the urge to take a nap.) The company plans to roll out the feature first in California, where generally pleasant weather makes it easier for the tech to operate, and where executives hope approval by state regulators will give it a stamp of legitimacy. The Swedish automaker has also signed partnerships with the Chinese AV developer Didi and US companies Aurora and Waymo to provide vehicles for autonomous ride-hailing and trucking fleets.
“The easiest way to actually make money from autonomy is to offer it as a feature for the consumer market.”
Mike Ramsey, automotive analyst, Gartner
Personalization—and not sharing—seems the name of the carmaking game. BMW has touted a color-changing paint (albeit limited to a dreary white-black-grey palette) that might allow customers to change the look of their vehicle on a whim. Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent company, announced a new partnership with Amazon, complete with a “SmartCockpit” project to “seamlessly integrate” cars with “customers’ digital lives”—that is, bring your experience with Alexa into the drivers’ seat.
“We do see a trend in that drivers will spend more time in the car and more time driving, whether it’s because the car will drive itself or because maybe you’re parked and waiting for your EV to charge,” says Kristensson, the Volvo executive. For that reason, the automaker also announced Wednesday that it would begin to offer the YouTube app on the consoles of some cars.
Some of the biggest names in self-driving tech continue to invest in robotaxis. Lyft and the autonomous-vehicle-tech developer Motional say they will launch a fully self-driving ride-hail service in Las Vegas next year. Waymo is operating a fleet of self-driving SUVs in Phoenix and is testing a similar service in San Francisco. Zoox, acquired last year by Amazon, has previewed a vehicle for shared taxi rides. The AV software company Aurora says it will work with Uber and Toyota to run a fleet of AVs. But most of these companies have diversified their moneymaking strategies, too, by also building software for autonomous truck or van fleets.
The changes matter because a world of personal self-driving cars looks very different than a world with fleets of shared ones. If people can sleep or nap or take meetings or answer emails or listen to lectures in their personalized travel pods, they might choose to live even further away from work or school, leading to more urban sprawl. Building sprawling housing, workplaces, and retail, rather than denser housing, workplaces, and retail, could increase emissions and reduce energy efficiency—an unfortunate turn of events as climate change breathes down our collective backs.
And yet, the notion of a personal self-driving car is attractive to many. At least GM thinks so. The automaker’s Cadillac brand Wednesday debuted its newest concept car, called InnerSpace, a luxury two-passenger electric vehicle that, the company said in a press release, “repurposes how passengers use their time while traveling, providing a space for solace and respite.” Which of course, leads to a question: Solace and respite for whom?
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