Why the coronavirus is a problem for autonomous vehicles

Gary S. Vasilash

Automated driving is costly. Even at the level currently for sale. And when we move toward full self-driving vehicles, the price is going to be well beyond the means of most individuals.

Consider for example that the base price of a Tesla Model 3 is $39,900. Autopilot — which Tesla says will enable your car to “steer, accelerate and brake automatically for other vehicles and pedestrians within its lane,” and permit “automatic driving from highway on-ramp to off-ramp including interchanges and overtaking slower cars,” and a whole lot more — is a $7,000 option.

While that $7,000 may not seem expensive for what is allegedly technological wizardry, it represents a more than 17% price increase over an equivalent Model 3 without it, which is not a trivial upgrade.

Then there’s the poster child for “real” Level 2+ functionality (i.e., there are not NTSB hearings associated with it), the Cadillac Super Cruise system. This system permits hands- and feet-free driving under restricted conditions (specifically, divided highways). Cadillac doesn’t offer Super Cruise (yet) as a stand-alone option. The 2020 CT6 Luxury AWD model — the base vehicle — doesn’t have Super Cruise; the $75,490 Premium Luxury does. Sure, there are other things standard on that trim, such as Night Vision and a Bose Panaray 34-speaker audio system. It's not like the autonomous suite itself costs $15,590, but you have to pay that much to get the automated tech.

In other words, automated driving ain't cheap. Adding insult to injury, the currently available systems aren’t all that capable.

Systems that are more capable, as in Level 4 or Level 5 (driverless, with the latter needing no human oversight), are going to be far more complex, require additional sensors and other such hardware (lidar, radar, cameras, ultrasonics), feature more powerful processors, and be operated by more advanced algorithms than those found at your local Tesla or Cadillac store. All of that adds cost. 

Right now, the Waymo One service in Arizona has seating for three adults and one child in its modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids. The front seats are vacant. The Pacifica is an existing platform that Waymo has adapted, but note that the company went with a vehicle that has capacity for more people than a typical crossover or sedan. The automated vehicle is meant to have as many riders as practical.

Similarly, when GM Cruise rolls out the Origin, it will truly be a commercial product. Not only will it have a price, as is necessary for commercial transactions, but it is intended to be purchased by fleet operators, not private owners. There are two bench seats facing one another, with seating for four (or as many as six, should the need arise). After all, more ridership means more revenue.

The use of the vehicles in commercial service means that the high cost of automation can be amortized by the fares. The likelihood of individuals being able to afford a Level 4 or Level 5 vehicle is low, unless that person has Musk money.

The Waymo One and the Cruise Origin are what are known as “demand responsive vehicles,” which are generally vehicles smaller than city buses. Today, this segment is largely represented by shuttle buses based on medium-duty commercial truck and van chassis.

Whereas a typical city bus has the capacity to hold from 42 to 60 passengers, the envisioned automated transports are all smaller. They are not designed for people who would likely ride in a city bus, but for people who are likely better able to afford to pay a little extra for a more intimate experience. If private car-hires are first class and city buses are coach, think of these as the business-class seats of the four-wheeled world.

But here’s a consideration: personal proximity.

Someone riding in an Origin is a whole lot closer to their fellow passengers than might be acceptable in this age of the coronavirus. Consider being in that box and having the person opposite let loose a sneeze. Presumably, these services will offer some sort of bail-out option to allow you to disembark before reaching your destination, but in a case like this, the damage may already be done.

The price point of fully automated systems will prohibit their early adoption except by businesses and the truly wealthy, and the former will more often than not employ them as ride-hailing platforms. But with the increased awareness of things that can linger on surfaces, odds are that the comfort people would normally feel sharing confined spaces with random strangers is going to decline.

Coronavirus might well claim another victim: the still-nascent automated driving transport services.