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Uber sells Autonomous Research division to startup, Aurora. 2021 to be the end of autonomous cars?

Written by Thembani Magazi – January 05, 2020

Edited by Asaf Kedem

To close off the difficult year 2020, Uber sold its autonomous vehicle research division to a startup named Aurora. It's a major change for a company that once saw self-driving technology as a core investment for its future. There has been increased investment in the self-driving cars of the future since 2015 (which can be described as the period of ‘peak hype’) with the early adopters leaping at the chance to develop autonomous mobility solutions quicker than everyone else. As the evidence suggests, however, 1 January 2021 has not brought about a driverless revolution. It is a bit jarring to see that Uber, one of the biggest players and supposed beneficiaries, decided to park its plans for self-driving taxis, selling off its autonomous division to Aurora in a deal worth about $4bn (€3.3 bn) – roughly half what it was valued at in 2019.

In other places, robotaxis have taken a backseat to the status-quo. Like Uber, the cab firm Addison Lee had laid out ambitious plans, signing up with the UK autonomy pioneer Oxbotica in 2018 to get robotaxis into London by 2021.

That deal was dropped in March of 2019, under new ownership. According to their chief executive, Liam Griffin: “Driverless cars are best left to the OEMs [manufacturers], and don’t form part of our current plans.”

The launch of an autonomous taxi service by Ford has also been postponed at least a year to 2022 because of the pandemic. Has the autonomous revolution slowed down? What could be the reason behind this lacklustre enthusiasm in 2021? Auto Trendy explains:

Unforeseen challenges

The industry refers to fully self-driving cars as Level 5 automation. The most apparent benefit of this level of automation is safety, with engineers touting the technology as removing human error. This sounds great, in theory, but in practice, several complications exist that inhibit large scale adoption of the ground-breaking tech. One of them is the limitation in sensors. During the early days of the hype, it was reported that Uber’s self-driving cars weren’t programmed to stop for jaywalkers and this unfortunately led to the death of one Elaine Herzberg, the first recorded fatality of a pedestrian involving a fully autonomous car. Other complications include but aren’t quite limited to:

not having agreement across the industry, or across standardisation bodies, on how machine learning should be trained, tested or validated

predicting how the autonomous vehicle will behave in new situations outside of its training is difficult

sufficient regulations for how electric cars can occupy all aspects of road use do not exist yet

● public acceptance of the often misunderstood technology and initiatives

With these colossal obstacles still appearing on the automotive radar, standardised level 5 autonomy still seems a distant prospect. That’s not to say that self-driving cars are down for the count, however, companies like Cruise and Zoox are proof of the lingering potential of this trend.

Massive potential

With several major players still in the game, it is unlikely that this year will spell the end for this revolutionary technology. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk affirms that self-driving cars will be safer this year and the brand aims to launch full-autonomous driving this year, 2021. There are still many sceptics to this, however, and according to an article in Consumer Reports, the Full Self-Driving capability suite requires significant driver attention to prevent significant dangers to the driver and other road users.

Auto Trendy’s take:

Peak hype appears to be at an end for self-driving cars but there are still exciting events to look out for on the self-driving calendar for the year. It is a very competitive market with new innovations made for the good of all road-users. There is a myriad of complex and difficult challenges that are keeping this goal of level 5 autonomy from being fully realised. We at Auto Trendy are still very enthusiastic about seeing these ambitious concepts be brought to life and firms like Aurora who specialise in self-driving trucks are brands to keep an eye on in 2021. Despite all of the chaos and calamity of 2020, 2021 doesn’t seem to have the brake force necessary to bring self-driving cars to a halt. We look forward to sharing the upcoming innovations and news with you this year!

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