By Abhirup Roy
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A quest for lower costs and efficiently moving goods and groups of people is pushing demand for driverless technology in trucks and shuttles, even as robotaxis battle renewed doubts after an October accident involving a General Motors Cruise car.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Aurora and California startup Gatik are among companies developing self-driving technology for vehicles that operate on set routes and have largely managed to avoid the public ire robotaxis have faced on busy city streets.
This has helped these companies, which mainly develop autonomous technology to equip vehicles, win large new customers like IKEA and Walmart, as well as local governments.
Gatik won grocer Kroger and processed food maker Tyson Foods as clients this year. The company operates traditional midsized trucks fitted with its autonomous technology that deliver goods on routes that avoid hospitals and schools, and it has been hiring aggressively and plans to deepen its presence in several states.
Aurora said it is on track to start hauling freight without a driver between Dallas and Houston by the end of next year.
"We still think trucking is poised to be the first true scaling rollout of autonomous technology," said Don Burnette, CEO of Kodiak Robotics, which runs long-haul autonomous trucks between Houston and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Burnette said Kodiak was on track next year to start getting on the road without the safety drivers who currently stay behind the wheel.
Limiting the risk of deploying across a densely populated city, Michigan-based driverless shuttle operator May Mobility aims to complement or replace human-driven transit systems within a specific area of a city. It has struck deals with local authorities.
Building and commercializing driverless vehicles, especially robotaxis, has been harder and costlier than initially imagined and has prompted regulatory concerns, investor anxiety and public criticism. Detractors complain that robotaxis have disrupted traffic and put people at risk due to erratic driving or abrupt stops in the middle of busy roads.
The outcry has intensified since an Oct. 2 accident involving a pedestrian who was dragged 20 feet (6.1 m) by a Cruise robotaxi after being struck by another vehicle. The company has paused all trips except a small pilot and hired a law firm to help it conduct a safety review.
Cruise has said it was "committed to rebuilding trust" with regulators."
Despite recent setbacks for driverless technology this year and more regulatory focus expected ahead, some companies have managed to win investments.
May Mobility and Aurora raised money. Stack AV - launched by founders of defunct self-driving startup Argo AI which was backed by Ford and Volkswagen - has attracted investments from SoftBank.
"There's been a shift towards trucking in terms of the work being done in autonomy," said David Bruemmer, a board adviser at the Autonomy Institute, an industry consortium that helps research and deploy autonomous infrastructure.
Self-driving trucks and shuttles that are low-speed and which operate on pre-defined routes, for use in industries such as port logistics, are seen as more valuable services and less risky, he said.
Still, the autonomous trucking industry has not been immune to challenges.
Several startups have struggled to continue funding their quest to develop heavy driverless trucks, slashing jobs and shutting shops.
Truckers and labor unions have called for a ban on self-driving trucks - some of which weigh over 80,000 pounds (36,287 kg) - saying they were unsafe and would lead to job losses.
The concerns found legislative support in California with a bill to prevent heavy-duty driverless trucks from operating in the state, until Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it in September.
"Sentiment in the AV (autonomous vehicle) industry is negative," Gatik CEO Gautam Narang said. More regulatory scrutiny and discussions around safety are expected in light of the Cruise incident, he said, and more companies will struggle next year and only a few will remain standing.
In July, Alphabet's Waymo - Cruise's rival - pushed back its autonomous trucking efforts indefinitely.
Waymo, which runs robotaxis in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix, Arizona, has "taken a measured and incremental approach in introducing our technology to the public," the company's chief product officer, Saswat Panigrahi, told Reuters via email. Waymo plans to soon deploy fully autonomous robotaxis in Austin, he said.
(Reporting by Abhirup Roy in San Francisco; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Matthew Lewis)