The road to autonomous mobility

Antonio Semeraro
Antonio Semeraro
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After a decade of hype and high expectations, autonomous mobility has suffered from internal limitations and external risks in recent years. While the technology has proven to be both fully functional and usable, a lack of suitable infrastructure, insufficient cost-effectiveness, global pandemic, and supply chain shortages have all hampered uptake. Yet there is cause for optimism: industry players large and small are starting to gain traction in the autonomous vehicle (AV) space and the rise of electric cars brings AV reality one step closer. More importantly, perhaps, forward-thinking nations are designing blueprints for the future with autonomous mobility an integral part.

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Despite a promising start, autonomous mobility has met the harsh reality of the market of late. Limited global implementation of the technology in high-volume use cases, crises driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a global shortage of semiconductors have shifted attention toward more critical technologies such as longer-range batteries for electric vehicles (EVs). Moreover, recent stock exchange listings have happened through special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), with almost all of them losing significant value since their introduction.

According to data collected by PitchBook, nearly all mobility SPACs have been trading below their IPO price of $10 per share. Even more troubling, only four out of the 60+ companies considered have been trading over their IPO share price.

From supply chains to share prices, many of the same challenges persist. However, promising silver linings are starting to appear, indicating that the fortunes of autonomous mobility could be changing for the better. Many AV players foresee commercialization of community robotaxi service by 2024, with forecasts predicting anywhere robotaxi becoming a reality by 2030+.

While autonomous mobility is still not accessible or even available to most users on the roads globally, companies operating in this space have continued their work in the background to advance the technology. To date, smaller mobility start-ups have been leading innovation in their specific verticals in recent years, but large original equipment manufacturing companies (OEMs) are catching up, adjusting their strategies, R&D focus, supply chains, and production capacity. As a result, legacy OEMs are progressively gaining traction in the innovative mobility space, including autonomous mobility.

In addition, the growth of other mobility-related technologies and use cases is expected to facilitate the uptake of autonomous mobility. In particular, growth in sales of electric vehicles (EVs) offers promise. Given their powertrain as well as their heavier reliance on software, EVs are more suited to accommodate autonomous mobility than traditional internal combustion engines (ICEs). As such, rapidly growing EV sales driven by their normalization in OEM model lineups and the development of more efficient charging networks are likely to present the positive outlook autonomous mobility was waiting for. According to the International Energy Agency, electric vehicle sales reached two million units in the first quarter of 2022, representing a 75 percent increase compared to the same period in 2021.

Saudi Arabia is one of the countries turning silver linings into tangible results. Long before it launched Vision 2030, the kingdom was already thinking ahead to a future built on diversification and advanced technology, with transportation a key area of national focus.

Deputy of Transport Enablement at Saudi Arabia’s Transport General Authority (TGA) Professor Omaimah Bamasag recently outlined the Kingdom’s goals for AV transport. Pointing to the NEOM and Red Sea projects, the deputy explained that Saudi Arabia’s cities of the future have been designed with autonomy in mind, with new transport systems based entirely on autonomous mobility – volocopters, robotaxis, and autonomous pods all in the mix. Meanwhile, several other megaprojects across the Kingdom are aimed at catering to autonomous mobility, such as the King Salman Park project in Riyadh, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal.

However, while Saudi Arabia has begun turning vision to reality, several roadblocks lay in the way of autonomous mobility success. According to Professor Bamasag, perhaps the most important of the hurdles relates to readiness of AV infrastructure, particularly in terms of the requirements for safe AV operation and the protection of data and privacy. Next are the challenges of regulation and public acceptance, especially if the issues of privacy are not sufficiently addressed.

Addressing the roadblocks requires close collaboration between public- and private-sector stakeholders—collaboration that is well underway in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Achieving the global goal of full autonomy in the transport sector may be a long time coming, but with technology continuously advancing, investment increasing, and interest on the rise, an autonomous future is not out of reach.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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