The state of the autonomous vehicle space heading into 2022
- Europe, the UK & Japan all proceeded with level 3 autonomous vehicle standard following the passing of UNECE regulations in January 2021
- There have been greater acquisition deals, new partnerships, and consortiums within the self-driving industry
The automobile sector made plenty of headlines this year, for its progress in certain areas and the lack thereof in others, with both pros and cons attributed mainly to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the pandemic has no doubt hit the digital fast-forward button in many industries. The self-driving industry was no exception — in fact, no market has seen the acceleration in 2021 quite like the autonomous vehicle industry.
For context, the sector is projected to surpass US$2 trillion by 2030 — potential that is hard to ignore. By then, more than 58 million vehicles globally are expected to be driving themselves. The rate of progress within the autonomous vehicle sector has even encouraged regulators around the world to introduce policy frameworks and legislation to enable the safe experimentation and development of the technology.
Looking back this year, there have also been various news highlighting the huge investment being poured into the largely US and Chinese companies that dominate this sector, as well as the progress made from ongoing ‘live’ road trials. Let’s take a look at the key progress milestones over the last 11 months.
Level 3 autonomous vehicle legislation
No doubt automakers have been working on self-driving for years but 2021 has seen the autonomous vehicle sector take some important strides forward. In January 2021, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) allowed the use of automated lane keep assist on public roads.
This meant that drivers would be able to disengage from the task of driving under certain conditions including vehicle speed below 60kph (37mph), operating on roads where pedestrians are not permitted (i.e. motorways/highways), the disengaged driver is given 10 seconds warning to re-engage and inclusion of driver ability recognition system.
Both Japan and Germany officially approved ‘conditional eyes-off’ Level 3 autonomous driving on public roads. Meanwhile, the UK and more EU countries are expected to follow Germany and Japan’s lead in passing similar legislation in 2022.
With the regulation change, things started to snowball. Japan was set to take full advantage of the regulatory changes at the beginning of 2021, and in March, Honda in Japan announced that they would have the first level 3 vehicle on the road in the form of the Honda Legend.
Later into the year, Germany also allowed level 3 vehicles on the road, with Mercedes claiming to be the first OEM supplier to satisfy the standards stipulated for international use. France has also announced that they will be making changes to their highway code to accommodate the UNECE changes while the UK says level 3 applications will be allowed on the road by the end of this year.
Level 4 self-driving — closer than anticipated
In February this year, Germany’s federal minister Andreas Scheuer announced new laws that would make Germany the first country to regulate level 4 autonomous driving. Level 4 autonomy features the ability to navigate, steer, accelerate, and brake without a driver. Such mobility services are already provided and tested by Waymo, not to mention China’s Baidu.
In the US, Tesla has also been working to implement full self-driving (FSD) vehicles. The company released its FSD beta software to around a thousand drivers in San Francisco, and has been implementing improvements over the last couple of months.
Robotaxis — leading the autonomous vehicle race
Robotaxis have been the most in-demand self-driving vehicle that has further been clocking up test miles, attracting considerable investment in the process. Within this year alone, numerous new trials were done in the US, China, Dubai and Europe. In China, interest in robotaxi firms is particularly evident.
Companies around those countries are competing to be the first to deploy commercial services in one of the dense and big cities. For instance, Cruise, Zoox and Waymo have focused their testing on the busy streets of San Francisco. Mobileye announced testing in New York City and is planning to operate a driverless commercial on-demand service in the streets of Tel Aviv.
Then there is China, which in November this year approved its first autonomous taxis by Chinese tech giant Baidu and start-up Pony.ai for commercial use, bringing dozens of robotaxis to the streets of Beijing. There are also firms like AutoX and Didi Chuxing accelerating their testing throughout the cities in the country.
More collaboration, more consolidation
Since autonomous vehicles are a complex, capital-intensive space that demands funds and continuous investments in R&D, more companies are eyeing acquisition deals, partnerships, and consortiums.
Some of the significant ones include the acquisition of Zoox by Amazon, Uber selling its AV division to Aurora, and Toyota’s purchase of Lyft’s autonomous vehicle division. There is also the new Autonomous Vehicle Computing Consortium (AVCC) which includes Arm, Bosch, Continental, GM, Toyota, Nvidia, NXP and Denso, comprising top automakers along with some of the leading chipmakers and tier 1 suppliers operating in the automotive sector.