SAN FRANCISCO -- When Silicon Valley startup Phantom Auto was formed in 2017, it was one of many software suppliers linking their fortunes to self-driving cars, confident that fleets of robotaxis would be using their technology within a few years.
But with delays in the mass deployment of autonomous vehicles, Phantom is now finding new customers off the road - on the sidewalk with delivery robots.
Phantom is not alone. Faced with the harsh reality that an autonomous future is further away than originally promised by global automakers and tech companies like General Motors, Uber and many others, smaller companies in the self-driving ecosystem are now pivoting to alternate uses for their technology.
Some are turning to delivery robots, while others are helping deploy autonomous vehicles for farms, construction sites or airports.
Robotaxis are still considered the industry's "humongous opportunity," in the words of Phantom co-founder Elliot Katz, but shifting to creative new ways to deploy the auxiliary technologies allows for immediate revenue during the wait before autonomous vehicles hit the roads en masse.
The widescale deployment of robotaxis, once pegged by industry analysts to be a $2 trillion industry by 2030, is now seen as further away due to a variety of hurdles, among them cost, complexity and unresolved legal and regulatory concerns.
Meanwhile, more modest rollouts of self-driving vehicles are coming sooner in limited areas with defined borders.
In Phantom's case, its remote operations technology, which allows a human operator miles away from an autonomous car to take over control when the car is confused, can be used for less safety-critical tasks.
Postmates, a San Francisco-based goods delivery company, will use Phantom's technology inside fleets of over a hundred sidewalk robots as they navigate sidewalks and crosswalks to deliver lunches, snacks, or other goods to customers, beginning next year.
"We had to figure out where is autonomous technology deployable today," Katz told Reuters. "It's about handpicking the right opportunity for the immediate term, medium term and long term."
Egil Juliussen, research director for automotive technology at IHS Markit, said that using the same technology for non-automotive applications, like robots, is a simpler path to market that can still tap the startups' artificial intelligence technology.
French autonomous shuttle maker and operator Navya threw out its financial targets in July and unveiled a new strategy of selling its technology to others.
The catalyst was the continued uncertainty over regulation that jeopardized anticipated fleet orders by customers last year, Chief Operating Officer Jerome Rigaud told Reuters. That led to missed 2018 revenue projections and the removal of Navya's founder and CEO.
Navya still plans to test its self-driving shuttles without a safety driver by early next year, but it now sees new opportunities in areas where regulation is simpler: hauling goods at airports, industrial sites and construction areas at slow speeds in limited areas, and in agriculture, Rigaud said.