[By Kyle Wiggers]
Following Waymo’s announcement that it would limit its ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona and its autonomous car testing on public California roads in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, several competitors adopted similar measures this week. Uber, GM’s Cruise, Aurora, Argo AI, and Pony.ai are among the companies that have temporarily suspended driverless vehicle programs.
“Our goal is to help flatten the curve of community spread,” said Uber Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) CEO Eric Meyhofer in a statement. “Following recent guidance from local and state officials in areas where we operate our self-driving vehicles, we are pausing all test track and on-road testing until further notice.”
Uber paused operations on March 16, and the company told VentureBeat that the ATG team continues to execute on projects from home with offline virtual simulation tooling like Autonomous Visualization System and VerCD. Uber had resumed autonomous vehicle testing in San Francisco on March 10 over a month after it received a California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) license, and it previously was operating fleets manually in Dallas, Toronto, and Washington, D.C.
Cruise’s chief people officer Arden Hoffman said that Cruise has suspended operations and closed all San Francisco facilities for the time being, with a plan to reopen them in three weeks’ time. One of the programs affected is a ride-hailing pilot in San Francisco called Cruise Anywhere that allows Cruise employees to use an app to get around mapped areas.
Cruise confirmed that it plans to pay autonomous vehicle operators during the period.
Aurora VP of operations Greg Zanghi told VentureBeat that Aurora’s entire team — including its test drivers — are working from home and that they will continue to get paid. In lieu of on-the-road tests, the company will use digital systems like its Virtual Test Suite to continue to fuel development and testing efforts.
As for Argo AI, a spokesperson told VentureBeat that while it hasn’t experienced a “significant impact” due to the coronavirus, it has taken steps to allow work from home, including pausing car testing operations at all of its locations. Argo was conducting testing in Pittsburgh, where it’s based, as well as in Austin, Miami, Palo Alto, Washington, D.C. and Dearborn, Michigan.
“Argo AI places the highest priority on ensuring our employees and contractors have a safe, secure and healthy work environment,” said the spokesperson.
Pony.ai decided to suspend its public PonyPilot service for three weeks starting March 16 and its autonomous vehicle commuter pilot for the Fremont government. The company recently launched both programs following a multi-month robo-taxi service in Irvine, California dubbed BotRide, in partnership with Hyundai (which provided ONA Electric SUVs) and Via (which supplied the passenger booking and assignment logistics).
Concern over the spread of the novel coronavirus was the chief motivator behind the industry-wide pauses in autonomous vehicle testing. Waymo said it made its decision “in the interest of the health and safety of our riders and the entire Waymo community,” and after at least one incident of a human safety driver in a Waymo vehicle refusing to pick up a passenger because a local case of COVID-19 had been reported. (Waymo continues to pick up passengers as part of its Waymo One program in Pheonix with a small number of completely driverless vehicles, however.)
In related news, Uber and Lyft today announced they would stop allowing customers to order shared rides in an effort to prevent infection. Uber also suggested that drivers roll down windows to “improve ventilation” and asked riders to wash their hands before and after entering a car.
In the U.S. at the time of writing, the total number of coronavirus cases and deaths stood at 4,226 and 75, respectively, as reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.