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Ford and VW shut down autonomous vehicle venture, what next?


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Ford and VW have decided to end the development of shared Level 4 autonomous vehicle robotaxis through, but the race continues, writes Pete Kelly, managing director of LMC Automotive.

Credit: Michael Vi /

Ford and VW have decided, at least for now, to end the development of shared Level 4 Autonomous Vehicle (AV) robotaxis through their joint venture, 

The entity, in which each company owns a little under 40%, will be disbanded with the two companies taking on some of the key engineers and developers to work directly for them in autonomous driving and ADAS technologies.

It may come as something of a surprise that two of the world’s large OEMs are exiting the race to a Level 4 Shared AV. But the cost of development is high and ongoing at a time when model range electrification is also absorbing cash. The lead time to profitable Shared AV fleets is too long for these businesses. 

Getting to Level 4 autonomous driving is a large technical challenge, but there are also other significant hurdles in regulation, commercial models, (potential) user attitudes, diversity of local complexity, infrastructure and more.

Consolidation in the sector was always likely and there may yet be more to come. For now, the Shared AV landscape in the US is narrowing to just a few players, with GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo appearing more committed and furthest ahead. Several ventures in China may also start to consolidate around a small number of tech companies, such as Baidu.

For the current set of leaders in the field, pilot programmes continue to be rolled out. If we are going to see further exits, such activity will likely continue right up to the point when it stops, as illustrated by the announcement on Argo AI’s website (dated 29 September) that its robotaxis will be available through Lyft in Austin, Texas.

It is not so much that there is a lack of belief that Level 4 AV developers will eventually get there – it is more that it could take more than a decade to do it.

At our recent GlobalData “Key Themes in Automotive” event, we discussed some of the difficulties in reaching the point at which large-scale deployment of Shared AVs might be possible. It is not so much that there is a lack of belief that Level 4 AV developers will eventually get there – it is more that it could take more than a decade to do it. Several hundred delegates from across the automotive sector seemed to be in broad agreement, with most putting the large-scale arrival of Shared AV fleets in the 2030s, and 40% suggesting it would be later than 2035.

The two-path approach looks set to continue. On one development path, we see companies like Waymo striving to create Level 4 AV vehicles for shared fleet usage; and on the other path, OEMs (and their suppliers) carefully developing ADAS technologies up through the SAE Levels but aimed at owned vehicles. 

Some, like GM, have a foot in both camps for now and, ultimately, both routes may be successful. But we will likely need to wait until the 2030s before we see the potential for transformative change brought about by truly self-driving vehicles.

Levels of driving automation

Level 0 - no driving automation

Most vehicles on the road today are Level 0: manually controlled. The human provides the "dynamic driving task" although there may be systems in place to help the driver. An example would be the emergency braking system, since it technically doesn’t "drive" the vehicle, it does not qualify as automation.

Level 1 - driver assistance

This is the lowest level of automation. The vehicle features a single automated system for driver assistance, such as steering or accelerating (cruise control). Adaptive cruise control, where the vehicle can be kept at a safe distance behind the next car, qualifies as Level 1 because the human driver monitors the other aspects of driving such as steering and braking.

Level 2 - partial driving automation

This means advanced driver assistance systems or ADAS. The vehicle can control both steering and accelerating/decelerating. Here automation falls short of self-driving because a human sits in the driver’s seat and can take control of the car at any time.

Level 3 - conditional driving automation

The jump from Level 2 to Level 3 is substantial from a technological perspective, but subtle if not negligible from a human perspective. Level 3 vehicles have “environmental detection” capabilities and can make informed decisions for themselves, such as accelerating past a slow-moving vehicle. But, they still require human override. The driver must remain alert and ready to take control if the system is unable to execute the task.

Level 4 - high driving automation

The key difference between Level 3 and Level 4 automation is that Level 4 vehicles can intervene if things go wrong or there is a system failure. In this sense, these cars do not require human interaction in most circumstances. However, a human still has the option to manually override. Level 4 vehicles can operate in self-driving mode. But until legislation and infrastructure evolve, they can only do so within a limited area (usually an urban environment where top speeds reach an average of 30mph). This is known as geofencing.

Level 5 - full driving automation

Level 5 vehicles do not require human attention. These cars won’t even have steering wheels or acceleration/braking pedals. They will be free from geofencing, able to go anywhere and do anything that an experienced human driver can do. Fully autonomous cars are undergoing testing in several pockets of the world, but none are yet available to the general public.

Source: Synopsis Inc