PYMNTS MonitorEdge May 2024

From Factories to the Fast Lane, Unpacking Autonomy’s Potential

automation, robotics, commerce

As the electric vehicle (EV) landscape shows signs of short-circuiting, automakers are eyeing another innovation. One more futuristic, and more fitting, for our rising artificial intelligence (AI) era. 

That’s because, with the news Tuesday (May 7) that Wayve — a software startup focused on self-driving cars, had raised a whopping $1.05 billion Series C round — autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles are top of mind for not just automakers, but also for warehouse and logistics operators, who can use similar technology to streamline an automate supply chain and manufacturing workflows. 

Founded in 2017, the London-based Wayve has spent the past seven years developing a ‘GPT for driving’ AI system that can empower any vehicle to see, think and drive through any environment by reimagining autonomous mobility through embodied intelligence. 

Per the company’s release, Embodied AI, which integrates advanced AI into vehicles and robots, will transform how machines interact with, comprehend and learn from human behavior in real-world environments, and is paving the way for greater usability and safety in autonomous driving systems. The company’s billion-dollar fundraise was led by SoftBank Group, with contributions from new investor Nvidia and existing investor Microsoft.

“AI is revolutionizing mobility. Vehicles can now interpret their surroundings like humans, enabling enhanced decision-making that promises higher safety standards. The potential of this type of technology is transformative,” said Kentaro Matsui, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers and board member at Wayve. 

But just like the EV revolution itself, an autonomous future where cars and warehouse vehicles drive themselves is not yet a guarantee. Regulatory, safety and standardization hurdles remain — as does the Achilles heel of infrastructure readiness. 

Read moreAI and Robotics Power Auto Sector’s Smart Manufacturing Drive

Successfully Scaling Autonomous Vehicle Innovations 

In an example of the challenges facing the autonomous mobility sector, Hyundai-backed self-driving car startup Motional on Tuesday announced that it was delaying its driverless taxi fleet. 

“Large-scale driverless deployment will not happen overnight. Driverless vehicles will enter the market when the technology has evolved, and — just as importantly — when the business case for autonomous deployment is clear … large-scale deployment of AVs remains a goal for the future, not the present … We’ve updated our strategic plan to focus resources on the continued development and generalization of our core driverless technology, while de-emphasizing near-term commercial deployments and ancillary activities,” the company said in a statement. 

The news comes on the heels of EV-turned-self-driving-pioneer Tesla’s own news that it will be showcasing its robotaxi, or Cybercab, this August. For comparison’s sake, Motional’s autonomous vehicles are rated as a Level 4 equivalent, while Tesla’s autopilot capabilities are ranked at Level 2.   

Still, “the latest version of Tesla’s (supervised) self-driving will blow your mind,” Tesla CEO Elon Must posted on X (formerly Twitter), also Tuesday night. 

But on Tuesday afternoon, news broke that federal regulator National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants Tesla to send more information related to its autopilot system after crashes continued occurring despite a December recall of more than two million vehicles. 

And according to a Wednesday (May 8) Reuters report, the Department of Justice is investigating whether Tesla committed securities or wire fraud by misleading investors and consumers about its electric vehicles’ self-driving capabilities.

During Tesla’s most recent earnings call, Musk described the car company as a next-generation autonomy and AI platform, and not an EV manufacturer. 

Read moreHumanoid Robots Take Heavy Lift Out of Warehouse Automation

Activating Autonomy Across Warehouse Workflows 

But while the open road presents several challenges for autonomous solutions, the closed-loop ecosystem of warehouses and distribution centers provides a different arena for the innovative technology to operate across. 

As Anna Brunelle, CFO at May Mobility, told PYMNTS in February, “I believe in our lifetime, not just automobiles, but every piece of moving machinery on the face of the earth will be automated. And the smart infrastructure that oversees it and supports it will also be automated.”

And the marketplace is responding to both the need and the opportunity autonomous vehicles present. Earlier this year, Figure, a California-based company developing autonomous humanoid robots, announced a collaboration with BMW to deploy general purpose robots in automotive manufacturing environments. 

At the same time, Walmart is subtly transforming its distribution centers by rolling out 19 autonomous electric forklifts across four of its facilities, showcasing a significant advancement in the use of AI-powered robotics in industrial environments.