Mobileye founder says robo-taxis are precursor to private self-driving vehicles

The phased strategy comes as the automotive industry is pulling back on its ambitious claims about when fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) will hit the mainstream.

Amnon Shashua, president and CEO of the pioneering driver assist company Mobileye, laid out a three-pronged strategy for getting to full autonomy. He described the plan during a TechCrunch mobility event held on July 10 in San Jose, California.

The first stage, he said, is advanced driver assist systems (ADAS). This is Mobileye’s wheelhouse; the company, which was acquired by Intel in 2017, develops collision avoidance and lane detection software to help prevent car crashes.

The next two phases are forthcoming. “Our Holy Grail is passenger car autonomy,” said Shashua, who is also a professor of computer science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where Mobileye is headquartered. And to get there, “we came to the realization that we must go through a robo-taxi phase.”

Shashua said cost and regulation are the biggest hurdles to moving directly into ubiquitous deployment of autonomous passenger vehicles. “If there is something that can kill the self-driving industry, it is regulation.”

The robo-taxi stage will likely last a long time, he said, after which the costs will have declined to a point where implementing the self-driving technology in private cars will make more sense financially.

Asked why Mobileye doesn’t just stick with ADAS, Shashua said driver assist yields “a lot of revenue and profits, but we would like to have more.”  

The robo-taxi business, he observed, is expected to net hundreds of millions of dollars. 

But Shashua also noted that ADAS is an “interesting bucket” and that the functionalities continue to improve. Driver assist systems, he said, are well on the way to meeting safety goals associated with autonomous vehicles.

“There are two revolutions: One is life-saving, which we can accomplish with driver assist. The second revolution is the autonomous revolution. With the autonomous revolution, the number of vehicles needed is reduced dramatically. And that is a transportation revolution.”

Mobileye’s phased strategy comes as the automotive industry is pulling back on its ambitious claims about when fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) will hit the mainstream. 

In another TechCrunch Mobility panel discussion, Daniel Laury, CEO of the AV startup Udelv, griped that the industry reset was a strategic effort among the top players to dominate the market.

“After a period of hype in the industry that happened over the last three years, now the top players are saying it’s not going to happen any time soon,” Laury said. “Well, when those players say that it scares everyone else, and [lets them] consolidate their position as an oligarchy.”

One company that is still on the fast track is Tesla. In April CEO Elon Musk he announced plans to equip the Tesla network for ride-hailing by the end of 2020 with one million self-driving vehicles. 

“When it comes to Tesla, their schedules should be taken with a grain of salt,” Shashua observed.

Mobileye’s robo-taxi service will launch in Tel Aviv in 2022. A joint venture with Volkswagen and a local vendor, the service will start with a stock VW car and later move to a custom vehicle. 

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Linda Baker, Staff Writer

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves staff reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes early-stage VC, freight-tech, mobility and West Coast emissions regulations.

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