Tesla trying to ‘force non-existent opportunity’ on AD

Warning that the BEV heavyweight may be barking up the wrong tree on self-driving passenger vehicles

Tesla trying to ‘force non-existent opportunity’ on AD
Oxa's AD ambitions are focused on mass transit and industrial logistics, not passenger cars

It seems like the whole industry is awaiting tomorrow’s Tesla Q1 results call, when analysts will finally be able to drill into the decisions CEO Elon Musk has or has not made on prioritising robotaxis relative to a new, more affordable compact BEV.

But at least one influential voice in the autonomous driving (AD) community cautions that the Tesla chief might be chasing a unicorn with his vision of personal self-driving vehicles used in a model similar to Air BnB.

“The number of you in the audience that actually wants to go out tomorrow and buy a self-driving car, it is actually probably quite low,” Sheelpa Patel, chief marketing officer at AD software firm Oxa, suggested at London’s Earthfest event at the end of last week.

Oxa’s technology is focused on enabling AD in the areas of urban mass transit and at industrial sites, so there is an element of talking one’s own book when Patel says her firm’s approach to AD is “delivering it where the world needs it most, rather than trying to force a use case on a customer that quite frankly does not want it, does not trust it, and is not ready for it”.

But just because it suits someone’s company to deliver a certain message, does not necessarily make that message untrue. And nothing that EV inFocus has learned about political, regulatory and legal, or citizen attitudes to AD suggests that there is any likelihood that robotaxis — still less privately-owned vehicles with full autonomy — are likely to enter the mainstream this decade, with China the possible exception.

So, when Patel says “companies such as Tesla, for example, forced a market opportunity that did not really exist”, we should bear in mind the self-interest, but not dismiss the conclusion.

Already out there

And Oxa can at least speak from a position of a company that has rolled out its AD software on a commercial, rather than trial, basis. “We have deployed 13 different vehicle types to date in 10 cities and across two continents. And we are deploying in many more commercial use cases throughout the year,” Patel says.

For example, it is working with Florida mass transportation system operator the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to roll out autonomous shuttle buses, as well as solar power developers for driverless vehicles to operate on their farms. It also plans to bring its solution to a UK port, Belfast Harbour, next year.

“Solar farms require 24/7 monitoring and maintenance to ensure that solar panels can be cleaned and operate efficiently. Solar farms can also be very risky and hazardous domains to operate in due to the fire risk. So, there are areas where it is actually much safer to deploy an autonomous vehicle than to have human drivers operating,” Patel says.

In her view, passenger shuttles and industrial logistics are the “two sectors where we see an immediate and urgent need for autonomy, and where we can actually make the deployment of autonomous vehicle technology commercially viable”.

“Companies like ours have been trialling for years. And what has been really the domain of, let us say, research and experimentation is actually becoming a reality,” she continues — in what could be seen as a deliberate contrast to more ‘all talk and little action’ AD ambitions.

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