Robo-taxi dream inches forward as Mercedes, Bosch will test autonomous S-Class in U.S.

Robo-taxi dream inches forward as Mercedes, Bosch will test autonomous S-Class in U.S.


Robo-taxis with backup drivers will operate in San Jose.

There have been several setbacks over the past few years when it comes to aspiring Level 4 and Level 5 robo-taxis. And while tech giants continue to push to be the first to field truly driverless cars, they’ve become a bit more sober on the timeframes. Mercedes-Benz and supplier giant Bosch are among those still forging ahead with the autonomous dream, recently launching a development project using autonomous taxis. The cars are based on S-Class sedans, part of an app-based ride-hailing service on the streets of San Jose, California.

Before you cancel all travel plans to San Jose or make travel plans to San Jose (depending on your stance on robo-taxis), let us assure you they won’t be entirely driverless. Each sedan will have a backup driver behind the wheel, and the autonomous taxis will operate between West San Jose and the downtown area, running along San Carlos Street and Stevens Creek Boulevard. So an empty S-Class won’t show up at your door to pick you up, as entertaining or terrifying as that would be, again depending on your stance on autonomous vehicles. 

Why San Jose?

It turns out the city was the first to invite autonomous developers to conduct field tests in the city, back in 2017. For the past two and a half years years Bosch and Mercedes have been working on a Level 4/5 driving system for driverless, fully autonomous vehicles. The two companies have been using a 100,000-square-meter proving ground built specifically for testing AVs in Immendingen, Germany, and have sought opportunities to test in real-world environments. 

“If automated driving is to become everyday reality, the technology has to work reliably and safely. And this is where we need tests such as our pilot project in San Jose,” said Michael Fausten, head of engineering for urban automated driving at Bosch.

At first, only the specially selected user group can download and use the ride-hailing app for one of the prototypes, and again, only within the carefully defined geographic area. With a backup driver behind the wheel at all times, the S-Class cars are allowed to operate autonomously along the route, the idea being for Mercedes and Bosch to gain insights into further developing Level 4 and 5 vehicles.

Several companies are testing Level 4/5 prototypes in the U.S. at the moment.

“It’s not just the automated vehicles that have to prove their mettle. We also need proof that they can fit in as a piece of the urban mobility puzzle,” said Uwe Keller, head of autonomous driving at Mercedes-Benz AG. “We can test both these things in San Jose.”

The pilot program’s launch follows more than a year of some disillusionment within the tech industry. There’s a a growing concern that truly autonomous taxis are decades instead of years away, contrary to what was predicted about five years ago.

AV developers haven’t shifted focus away from Level 4 and 5 vehicles entirely. But there are indications of a general industry-wide reassessment of just when completely driverless vehicles will be trusted to operate without a backup driver, and under what conditions. 

Just four weeks ago chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG Ola Kallenius made skeptical comments to the press regarding the pace of development of truly driverless vehicles, playing down expectations of major breakthroughs within just a few years. 

Mercedes won’t be the first to launch an AV taxi service with a backup driver and equally real passengers: Lyft tested autonomous taxis in Las Vegas during and after CES back in 2018. And Waymo has also been testing driverless taxis in a few areas in Phoenix, in addition to large closed courses of the type Mercedes and Bosch have been using.

There is no shortage of companies carrying out tests on closed courses, but the next stage—testing in geofenced areas with real passengers and backup drivers—is being rolled out just as autonomous developers inch toward the Level 4/5 goal.

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