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Infrastructure is next big thing in AV investment

Aviation industry considered model for autonomous vehicle development

Autonomous vehicle (AV) companies are emerging from a tumultuous period defined by layoffs, delayed timelines and consolidations, but the industry remains hamstrung by lack of physical and digital infrastructure, a panel of investors said during this week’s virtual Automated Vehicles Symposium.

“We’re not [at the point] where one company can build a widget and the world will change,” said Orin Hoffman, a partner with the Engine, a venture capital firm focused on breakthrough technologies at universities.

“We need a very complicated regulatory and infrastructure investment before we get to the next stage,” Hoffman said, “and that is going to be a far more complicated journey than any of us expected.”

Echoing that analysis, Eran Sandhaus, managing director, Copia Growth Partners, said even in the autonomous food delivery and robotaxi space, where pilots and services have accelerated since the pandemic, infrastructure challenges have yet to be solved and definitely not at scale.

Aviation as a roadmap

Sandhaus was one of several summit speakers who invoked the aviation industry — a complex, safety-based system comprising airplanes, control towers and airport management — as a model for the next stage of AV development.

Although the AV industry is heading in that direction, for now, “there are too many companies running in too many different directions,” Sandhaus said. “The industry is not going to be a big thing like we see today in aviation until we have the infrastructure in place.”

Separately, in  a panel discussion on Monday, Christopher SanGiovanni, Uber’s director of Organizational Safety Management, said following the fatal crash involving one of the company’s self driving vehicles, the tech giant implemented a top-down, organizational approach to safety pioneered by the aviation industry known as a Safety Management System (SMS)

“The SMS shifted the ownership of safety risk from the safety department to leadership of functional areas,” SanGiovanni said.

Autonomous vehicles “ooze” into infrastructure

Whether it’s a 5G network or smart city localization, future development is going to involve far more than just autonomous vehicles, Hoffman said. “It’s going to enable a whole host of technologies.”

Entrepreneurs should expand their focus beyond just AVs to see where the opportunities are to get involved in public-private partnerships and get a foothold in the markets. “It will be interesting to see what those use cases are – whether it’s food delivery or robots – that are going to ooze into what becomes our widespread adopted infrastructure.”

The panelists touched on the need for AV regulation, now a patchwork of local and state policies, that need to be implemented to accelerate industry adoption and acceptance. 

“At some point, the airline industry got regulated,” observed Hoffman. “You had to have sensors and interfaces so a Boeing doesn’t collide with an.Airbus.”  

Additionally, a “complicated set of government discussions” will need to take place around standardization, related to intercar communication, car-to-environment communication and environment-to-car, Hoffman said. All provide fertile ground for entrepreneurs seeking to get into the infrastructure space.

Wanted: bold leadership

On the public policy side, the industry needs “dozens of brave mayors and governors,” said Jim Scheinman, founding managing partner of Maven Ventures, a firm whose portfolio companies include self-driving trucking companies Embark and Cruise, as well as May Mobility, an AV shuttle startup.

Noting that the pandemic is reshaping transportation, from an increase in last-mile delivery to a reduction in car trips and the opening of new biking and walking paths in metro areas, Scheinman sketched a vision of the future in which government leaders tell citizens: “If you want to come into my city, leave your car outside the city and take a robotaxi in.”

Scheinman continued, “Let me remind everyone why we are so excited about autonomous vehicles. They will save one million lives a year, and help mitigate climate change impacts with electrified autonomous vehicles that are shared instead of owned.

“There’s a reason why we are moving in this direction,” he said. ”It’s not only the right thing but good for everybody too.”

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Linda Baker

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to