COVID-19 ISO Insights

Autonomous Vehicles: COVID-19 Crisis Producing Mixed Results

June 8, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU, SCLA

At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, there appeared to be at least two trains of thought regarding how the trajectory of autonomous vehicle deployment may be affected by the pandemic:

  • Autonomous vehicles have reportedly displayed some viability in short, defined routes, and their use could be beneficial for local driving to mitigate contact between two different people and thus reduce the spread of the virus.
  • Refining and advancing AV technology still remains an arduous, capital-intensive process, and the financial constraints that COVID-19 has wrought could serve to be a blow for the AV industry.

While there were some regulatory developments that supported the former, such as California’s Department of Motor Vehicles granting a permit to a robotics company to, in part, “conduct deliveries with its local retailers”, which include Domino’s Pizza and Walmart, the latter may have more significant implications for the future of autonomous vehicles.

As we have posted, the magnitude of the challenges involved in developing AV’s has reportedly pushed back the timelines for deployment. A former General Motors executive recently told Bloomberg that, in the midst of this pandemic, the AV industry is in mile 15 of the marathon, with the pandemic placing a “massive hill” in front of the field. There has already been some fallout resulting from this crisis, which includes:

  • According to the New York Times, one self-driving startup has gone out of business during the pandemic.
  • The Times also notes that a major OEM has pushed back the launch of its autonomous driving service from 2021 to 2022, at least partially due to the closure of factories during the pandemic. Also reported in the article was another company being set back due to the slowdown in production of hardware in China.
  • Layoffs and budget cuts have reportedly occurred in some companies that are fully dedicated to the development of AV’s, as well as for larger players that allocate some of their budget to AV R&D.

How are Some AV Companies Adapting?

In an already hyper-competitive industry that requires massive expenditures, even just a couple of months of minimal activity could have grave consequences for a company. But MIT Technology Review has reported about different steps AV companies are taking to continue functioning during this challenging period.

For instance, in lieu of performing road tests that were not feasible during this period of social distancing, one company, per the article, is using their robust volume of data to “doubl[e] down on efforts like detailed data labeling, 3D mapping, and identifying overlooked scenarios from previous road sessions that can be used to train their systems.” The CEO and cofounder of the company told Technology Review that they are also using its “‘hardware-in-the-loop’ pipeline to ‘catch software issues that would manifest on [company] hardware and not on developer laptops or cloud instances.’"

A different company, per the article, is:

relying on its advanced simulators to keep putting cars’ software through its paces—a regular practice even before the pandemic, but [the] SVP of engineering says they’re improving the detail on how cars are scored during their encounters in the sims as a way to better assess competency in unusual situations, like when dealing with ambulances or delivery trucks.

These simulators had shown some viability to help optimize AV’s even before the COVID-19 crisis, as this 2019 article from Science Daily indicates. Additionally, a spokesperson for Waymo, a wholly owned subsidiary of Alphabet, told Technology Review that Alphabet’s computing power, in part, makes a day of simulated driving akin to “‘driving more than 100 years in the real world.’”

While it appears that the autonomous future may have encountered some roadblocks as a result of this pandemic, this may also serve to accelerate the Darwinist ebbs and flows that a complex and nascent industry typically faces: only the strong will survive.