Motional CEO hints at an autonomous future in logistics

Motional, the $4 billion joint venture between Aptiv and Hyundai, is exploring the company’s potential involvement in autonomous trucking or logistics, its CEO said today during a live session at TechCrunch’s 2021 Mobility Event.

“The beauty of what’s on the other side of the coin is that the same core technology can of course apply to multiple use cases,” said Karl Iagnemma on the panel led by TechCrunch transportation editor Kirsten Korosec, who asked about Motional’s intention to expand its business model into trucking. “It’s similar, it’s not the same, but it’s similar. And so we are actively exploring other use cases. We will have additional activity in this area. We don’t have anything to announce today. But more to come.”

While Motional still believes the biggest economic opportunity comes from solving the hard technological problems of autonomy in the service of moving people, AKA the robotaxi model, Iagnemma recognized the same hard problems — perception, planning, decision making, localization — lie at the core of autonomy, whether that’s moving people or parcels.

“We’re looking for a great business opportunity that has the closest adjacency from a technical perspective to the stack that we’re currently developing,” said Iagnemma, responding to what is most appealing in the delivery and logistics model. “That’s really what it boils down to. These different use cases have, in some cases, quite dramatically different business cases around them, the opportunity looks quite different. And so that helps us score rank order internally. What presents an interesting opportunity? And then again, we tried to align that toward our current technology development path to say, hey, this would be the least incremental effort for the biggest incremental opportunity. That’s how we sort of guide our strategy, internally at Motional.”

For his part, Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO of autonomous vehicle company Aurora, and the other panelist on the session, admitted that ride-hailing and moving people with automated vehicles will ultimately be both a transformational business and one that surpasses trucking in the long term. Aurora is currently focused on freight applications, rather than robotaxi, for a number of reasons, including the ability to scale now.

“[The robotaxi] market will take time to evolve, whereas the freight and trucking market is here today,” said Urmson.

Both panelists agreed that there’s no low-hanging fruit in the autonomous world. The problem of self-driving vehicles is difficult to solve, but Urmson argues it’s perhaps a bit easier to solve with trucking, where you don’t have to reckon with the amount of variability in the road network of a city. Building an autonomous stack to drive on freeways is easier due to their mostly uniform nature.

“So once you crack the initial nut of having the technology working in that operational defined design domain, the rollout moves from a technological expansion to an operational expansion,” said Urmson. “And that looks more like kind of a conventional business. So we think that’s a way to be scaling the business and operations and generating the revenue stream that allows us to then go and really take that core technology and apply it into ride hailing and build an exciting business in that space as well.”

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