AV Life After Argo AI

Every new industry sector goes through a consolidation process where the strongest survive, and so it is with automated and autonomous driving technologies.

Waymo’s latest roboshuttle will see expanded operations in 2023, the company promises. (Waymo)

The recent shuttering of Argo AI, one of the autonomous-vehicle industry’s leading tech companies, by Ford and Volkswagen might come as a surprise to commuters in San Francisco and in Phoenix, Arizona. Those who regularly use the robotaxi services of GM-backed Cruise Automation and Alphabet’s Waymo see these and other AVs under development during their daily travels. On public roads. Every day.

S&P Global’s December 2022 AV market forecast data comparing the five levels of SAE driving automation. (S&P Global)

Indeed, Argo AI’s sudden demise and difficulties at other startups (including AV pioneer Aurora) have highlighted the sheer engineering challenges of safely achieving SAE Level 4 driving automation – and reinforced AV critics. But as Guidehouse Insights’ leading e-Mobility analyst Sam Abuelsamid notes , the AV sector’s leaders appear to be moving out ahead of the pack. Cruise has expanded its robotaxi service into Austin, Texas, with operations in more cities planned in 2023. The company’s CEO Kyle Vogt claims Cruise will reach $1B in revenue by 2025.

Waymo is moving shuttle operations into Los Angeles after getting approval to operate without a safety driver in San Francisco. The company is co-developing a purpose-designed electric robotaxi with Geely-owned Zeekr. And Hyundai robotaxis are joining the ride-hailing fleets of Lyft and Uber, in partnership with AV tech startup Motional, starting in 2023.

Functionality advances

Meantime, ADAS technology continues to expand beyond the formal SAE Level 2 category. The enhanced (and unofficial) “Level 2-Plus” systems – the term was coined by supplier giant ZF – are the industry’s hottest automated driving playing field, engineers tell SAE Media. While SAE Level 3 remains controversial, Honda recently said it is developing technology to enable its L3 system to function at any speed below legal limits on highways by the second half of the 2020s.

Honda in March 2021 became the first OEM to sell a vehicle with L3 capabilities, but only in its Japan home market. Likewise Audi, which did not homologate its L3 system, is forging ahead with enhanced ADAS.

The shift of AV development focus into the commercial-vehicle space, and the parallel rise of super-enhanced ADAS, has “the market for radar, camera, lidar, and computing accelerating very fast,” reported Pierrick Bouley, senior analyst at Yole Intelligence. In September 2022, he placed the market’s compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) at 13.2%. “We see this market growing from $15.4 billion in 2022 to $28.6 billion in 2027,” Bouley noted. A recent report by Fortune Business Insights pegged the global lidar market value to reach $6.71B by 2026, compared with $1.32B in 2018. Through the 2019-2026 forecast period, Fortune expects automotive lidar’s CAGR to reach 22.7%.

S&P Global AV sector analyst Jeremy Carlson sees increasing vertical integration in some key areas of self-driving vehicle technology. (S&P Global)

SAE Media asked Jeremy Carlson, the Los Angeles-based associate director at industry analysts S&P Global who specializes in AV and ADAS technologies, his view as Level 2-Plus and L3 systems development rushes ahead and AVs move to a commercial-vehicle play.

“The shift is not necessarily at the expense of autonomous Levels 4 and 5,” he said. “Early on, the messaging from automakers indicated a fear of missing out on light-duty AVs – an “are the tech companies going to eat our lunch?’ kind of mentality. They wanted to explore Level 4, but it’s a pretty big upending of the business model to get into this mobility-as-a-service, fleet-centric model.”

More vertical integration

The industry’s concerns about such a profound change weren’t based only on the cost and development time of the technology, but also the relationship with the customer. “All of that has context in bringing in automated driving at Levels 2, L2-Plus and L3. It represents an advancement of functionality. It’s also quite accessible to a lot of customers in terms of cost, and accessible to the automaker and suppliers in terms of investment and fewer redundancies required.”

The further up the SAE Levels scale you take your systems, the greater the technology and cost challenge. Carlson noted that many of the L2-Plus capabilities essentially are convenience features: “Customers are mostly happy to pay for them because they deliver tangible benefits.”

While some sensor and hardware content, such as forward-looking cameras, radars, and some blind-spot radars, are approaching heavy penetration rates, suppliers continue to realize rising profits as the value per sensor increases, Carlson said. And regarding the AV “stack,” the growth of autonomy domain controllers is ongoing in Level 2 and L2-Plus, as engineers group ever-expanding sensor arrays. The domain-control architectures enable features such as vehicle path planning.

“They’re making this area more vertically integrated. There is significant innovation in all these areas,” he asserted.