MIT task force predicts fully autonomous vehicles won’t arrive for ‘at least’ 10 years


Two years ago, MIT launched the Task Force on the Work of the Future, an “institute-wide” effort to study the evolution of jobs during what the college characterizes as an “age of innovation.” The faculty and student research team of more than 20 members, as well as an external advisory board, published its latest brief today, focusing on the development of autonomous vehicles. It suggests fully driverless systems will take at least a decade to deploy over large areas and that expansion will happen region-by-region in specific transportation categories, resulting in variations in availability across the country.

Beyond the technical challenges, coauthors John Leonard (an MIT professor of mechanical and ocean engineering) and Erik Stayton (an MIT doctoral candidate) point to costs as a barrier to adoption. Truly autonomous vehicles require complex sensors and computers whose production volume is lower compared with even advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). And teleoperation, in which humans monitor autonomous vehicles for safety, is likely to be a “non-negligible” cost in light of research raising concerns about business models. One case study found that robo-taxis would struggle to remain cost-competitive with personal vehicle ownership in San Francisco due to expenditures on remote operators, licensing, insurance, maintenance, and other systems.

Amazon’s recent multibillion-dollar purchase of Zoox, which followed a $500 million investment in Didi Chuxing’s self-driving unit and a $750 million extension of Waymo’s first external round to $3 billion, supports the notion that autonomous vehicle development remains expensive and unprofitable. Waymo, for instance, reportedly yielded just hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in revenue prior to a pandemic-led pause in operations, and the company’s annual cost is estimated at around $1 billion. The race for runway has taken on greater urgency as the pandemic roils the economy. Well-financed ventures like Cruise, Kodiak Robotics, and Ike have shed hundreds of employees collectively, while others, like Zoox, are in talks about potential buyouts.

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Indeed, even vehicles with more limited capabilities, like the geofenced shuttles run by May Mobility, EasyMile, and Optimus Ride, have struggled to make headway. The Department of Transportation two years ago published a report on the driverless shuttle sector, highlighting the limited vehicle autonomy, procurement challenges, and regulatory unpredictability shuttle startups have yet to address. “The market is small, and many companies in this space have little experience designing and validating systems and producing vehicles, compared to traditional automakers,” the report’s authors wrote. “Low-speed automated shuttles may not be suitable for all environments and services.”

This reality has given rise to alternative autonomous pursuits like transportation. TuSimple, Thor Trucks, Pronto.ai, Ike, Einride, Kodiak Robotics, Embark, Daimler, Volvo, Waymo, and Aurora are among the startups competing within the $700 billion shipping and logistics market. Simply put, unlike ride-sharing, there’s a real and present need for autonomy in trucking. Driverless trucks stand to save $70 billion annually while boosting productivity by 30%, all of which will help to close a U.S. labor shortage gap the American Trucking Associates estimated at 50,000 truckers in 2018.

But truckers do more than just drive, as the MIT brief notes, which is why short-term impact might not be widespread. One of the delivery solutions Waymo is exploring is a transfer-hub model; rather than an automated truck covering an entire journey, there would be a mix of an automated portion and a portion involving manually driven, human-manned trucks. Automated vehicle transfer hubs close to highways would handle the switch-off and minimize surface street driving.

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“Human presence within even highly automated trucks would remain valuable for other reasons such as loading, unloading, and maintenance,” the report reads. “A rapid replacement of a significant portion of [truck-driving] jobs would present an employment crisis. Employment impacts, however, will depend on the rate of advancement of the technology and the pace of geographical rollout. We believe that these will be slower than many have predicted, which will provide more time to prepare for workforce changes and to study potential impacts on transit and congestion, whose effects might in fact outweigh direct impacts on driving-related occupations.”

Still, the brief cautions that “millions” are susceptible to potential disruption as the task of driving becomes automated — at least 370,000 ride-hailing drivers, 681,000 bus drivers, 1.9 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, and 1.45 million delivery drivers and sales workers as of 2018. To stave it off, Leonard, Stayton, and colleagues call on policymakers to strengthen career pathways for drivers, increase labor standards and worker protections, advance public safety, create good jobs via human-led truck platooning, and promote safe electric trucks within the next several years. They also recommend improvements to infrastructure like roads, bridges, communications systems, databases, and standards, which they argue can create positive spillover effects with regard to jobs, accessibility, and the environment.

“The automated vehicle transition will not be jobless. The longer rollout time for … autonomy provides time for sustained investments in workforce training that can help drivers and other mobility workers transition into new careers that support mobility systems and technologies,” they wrote. “Transitioning from current-day driving jobs to these jobs represent potential pathways for employment, so long as job-training resources are available.”

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