Toyota is partnering with Aurora Innovation to begin testing autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads, running a shuttle that includes trips to or from the airport. The service comes as other companies, such as Waymo, Cruise and others are in the midst of extensive studies underway.
The Japanese automaker is using specially equipped Sienna minivans for the trials. The minivans don’t use a driver, but there are two support personnel in the van to ensure it operates safely. The vehicles are retrofitted with Aurora technology and are driving through a variety of scenarios, including highways and runs to and the airport.
“The route showcases Aurora’s ability to safely operate at highway speeds, a key technical differentiator that allows it to prioritize popular and lucrative rides,” the U.S. company told Reuters in a statement.
The push by Toyota and Aurora isn’t much of a surprise as more and more automakers are playing in it. In fact, General Motors just spent $2.1 billion buying Japan’s SoftBank’s share of its own AV subisidiary, Cruise Automation.
GM also said it will invest an additional $1.35 billion in Cruise as part of its focus on bringing autonomous vehicle technology to market. The company has held a majority stake in Cruise since 2016, though the San Francisco-based operation has received significant capital from several other investors, including both SoftBank and Honda.
“We continue to believe our investment represents an extraordinary opportunity for creating long-term shareholder value,” GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said in a statement.
Cruise has been testing prototype vehicles for several years on public roads, using them as part of a pilot ride-sharing service. It recently received approval from California regulators to begin offering rides to paying customers using fully driverless vehicles. That will begin in San Francisco, though GM CEO Barra has indicated the goal is to quickly expand to other U.S. markets.
The next step is to begin production of the Cruise Origin, a toaster-shaped shuttle designed to serve as the primary vehicle for a commercial driverless ride-sharing service.
Industry analysts have long contended that pulling the driver out of the equation is the critical step towards making ride-sharing a viable alternative to vehicle ownership.
Plenty of competitors
Waymo, which was originally part of Google, and developed, at least in part, by Aurora’s founder Chris Urmson. It secured $2.5 billion in investor funding last year, allowing it split the technology and development into separate enterprises: Waymo Driver, Waymo One and Waymo Via.
Waymo Driver is the company’s autonomous driving technology. It’s the core tech behind its commercial enterprises, Waymo One and Waymo Via. Waymo One is the ride-hailing service the company runs in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo Via is used on Class 8 and other heavy-duty trucks to transport goods.