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Putting Autonomous Driving Back on the Road

Founders, executives, and analysts agree that self-driving car companies are in for a bumpy ride.

A Neolix autonomous vehicle during a launch event at the company's facility in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, China, May 2019. 

A Neolix autonomous vehicle during a launch event at the company's facility in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, China, May 2019. 

Photographer: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg
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The self-driving car was a dream deferred even before the Covid-19 outbreak brought the U.S. economy to a standstill. By early 2020, plans to launch robotaxi services had been pushed back or scaled down as excitement over driverless cars gave way to recognition of the long work and heavy expense of bringing the technology to market. Now the pandemic has forced companies to pull their cars from the road, send engineers to work from home, and look carefully at their balance sheets. 

While some companies are taking the opportunity to demonstrate the promise of autonomous vehicles for contact-free delivery, these efforts serve mostly to show how far the industry remains from large-scale, truly driverless deployments.  Hyperdrive spoke with a handful of industry consultants and executives about what’s ahead.  There is general consensus that autonomous vehicle developers are in for a bumpy ride, and that consolidation is inevitable. But there is also widespread confidence that the project of building self-driving cars is more urgent than ever. 

“Covid-19 is driving home for so many the promise of fully autonomous vehicles not only to make our roads safer, but also to help riders stay healthy during uncertain times,” said Dmitri Dolgov, chief technology officer of Waymo, formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project, via email.