Mobileye robo-taxis still a go for 2022 despite COVID-19

While self-driving vehicles like Softbank's Nuro are delivering medical supplies and food in some Calinfornia communities, Intel's Mobileye unit is moving ahead with a robo-taxi concept for 2022 that will include mobility services from newly acquired Moovit. (Nuro)

Intel’s Mobileye CEO on Tuesday recommitted to launching robo-taxis in 2022 despite the threat that COVID-19 and disastrous earnings for carmakers might delay self-driving innovation.

That Mobileye launch in 2022 will occur partly with the help of a $900 million acquisition announced Monday of Moovit for its mobility services and transit data resources.

Mobileye CEO Amnon Shashua said Moovit’s data and mobility insights will create a mobility layer as well as a customer-facing app that are “key to our global roadmap to bring a self-driving car into service.” He spoke during a conference call with reporters and analysts.

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Getting a robo-taxi service ready by 2022 is doable, he said.  “Eghteen months is a reasonable time frame,” Shashua said. “Waiting longer would have jeopardized our readiness in 2022.  Our confidence is based on the maturity of self-driving technology. That’s why we believe in the timeline.”

"COVID-19 is immaterial and I'll explain why," Shahsua added. "In a time of crisis you either pull back or lean in and this is an example of our leaning in. People still need to move from place to place and the movement of people is a big ecosystem. Mobility requires a lot of compute and we are building silicon and software and interpreting information from cameras, LiDARs and sensors."

Mobileye first committed to its 2022 timeline in October 2018 in an announcement with Volkswagen and Champion Motors.  At the time, Mobileye said it would provide Level 4 autonomic vehicle capabilities by 2022 for a self-driving ride-hailing service.

Level 4 and Level 5 are the highest levels of driving autonomy recognized by the Society of Automotive Engineers.  In both levels, drivers allow a vehicle to judge driving conditions and weather.  Level 4 would allow Mobileye to operate vehicles without human drivers within a geo-fenched area, such as the area around Tel Aviv where Moovit is based.  There could be other standards limiting what a robo-taxi would do under Level 4, such as not turning left at some especially busy intersections or not operating at all in the snow. The Level 5 domain means a robo-taxi would operate under all conditions and drive anywhere and without a steering wheel or pedals. Some analysts view Level 5 as the self-driving equivalent of a mission to Mars.

Shahsua recommitted on Tuesday to a 2022 launch of a level 4 service in Tel Aviv under a geofenced condition.  “This is just a beginning,” he said. “We’ll expand to a number of cities that are geofenced, with hundreds of cities ramping up to the end of the decade.”

Several self-driving analysts recently told FierceElectronics that  development of self-driving technologies, including chipsets used in communicating with sensors and providing AI processing , will slow a year or more with COVID-19 drastically reducing demand for new cars and shuttering some auto plants.

RELATED: Intel buys Israel’s Moovit mobility service for $900M

 With lowered revenues, these analysts believe development dollars for self-driving vehicles will go down.  Some analysts even believe the idea of a robo-taxi with shared rides could lose favor as people social distance and try to avoid infection.  Others have gone so far as to say that consumers will instead tend to favor driving alone in their own cars.

But Shashua responded that a robot shuttle would have no driver to spread germs and “should have a much better COVID-19 value proposition…I would not overstress COVID-19 in the long term.  People interact face to face and people need mobility. Owning your own car doesn’t solve all your problems [including urban congestion].  COVID-19 is only now and will be over much sooner than people suspect.”

One theory emerging is that robo-taxis will be especially helpful in delivering food and medical supplies to avoid human contact during future pandemics.  In recent weeks, several robo-taxi operators have been delivering meals and medical supplies in San Francisco and other parts of California. The companies include GM’s Cruise unit, Softbank’s Nuro and Toyota’s Pony.ai, according to Reuters.

Intel and Mobileye have the resources and long-term commitment to forge ahead despite COVID-19 and other negatives.  “They are thinking long term” said Mike Ramsey, vice president of auto analysis for Gartner, in an email. “The company already is very deep in terms of investment in this area.”  Intel bought Mobileye in 2017 for $15.3 billion.

Weeks ago, Intel Capital had been considering further venture funding of Moovit as a Mobility as a Service provider when the idea emerged to buy the Israel-based company outright, said Wendell Brooks, president of Intel Capital.  The Moovit brand will remain and Moovit will become an independent subsidiary of Intel.  The market for mobility services, including robo-taxis is projected to reach $160 billion in 2030, Brooks added. “We are going to be front-footed with COVID-19,” Brooks said.

On a technical level, Moovit’s data will be combined with RIM vehicle data to predict potential problems for collision avoidance and increased safety.  “Moovit has a huge real time database of vehicles, primarily public transit, but it also has the ability to use AI to determine transit times and optimized routes,” explained Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates."Intel can use that data to enable the transportation services it envisions longer term."

Shashua said Moovit solves one of nine development stack layers needed to provide a robo-taxi service in 2022. Moovit provides mobility intelligence and customer facing layers for fleet optimization while Volkswagen and Nio are providing vehicle layers in the stack. Telemetry operations are still needed for Mobileye to remotely observe how vehicles are functioning on the road during road blocks and other problems, he said.

Working in Level 4 and 5 driverless automation means that Mobileye has skipped over Level 3, which allows drivers to resume command of a vehicle if it is not able to perceive road conditions, such as during heavy fog or rain.  Audi very recently said it won’t be providing Level 3 Traffic Jam Pilot automation in its A8 cars. Some engineers are concerned that it could take 30 seconds for a driver to resume control of a Level 3 vehicle that is encountering a dangerous situation.

“Level 3 is a very problematic niche,” Shashua explained on the call. “We do not believe in a Level 3.”  With Level 4 and 5, Mobileye will start with  robo-taxis that are part of a regulated fleet of vehicles, instead of consumers being driven in cars of their own.  A few  years of robo-taxis and improvements to safety conditions of roadways will help usher in Level 4 and 5 for consumer-owned self-driving vehicles, Shashua and other self-driving proponents believe.

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