Tesla CEO Elon Musk is staying the course with his promise of self-driving robotaxis within a few years, even as the auto industry is pulling back on autonomous-vehicle investments.
But Tesla's newest competitors — electric vehicle startups Rivian Automotive and Lucid Motors — are focusing their efforts on advanced driver-assistance systems that still require driver involvement and human controls like a steering wheel and pedals.
The different approaches among the young companies reflect a growing consensus among experts that solving the technical challenges of autonomous driving are harder than expected — unless Musk's faith in the concept proves doubters wrong and reaps big monetary rewards.
That doesn't mean Silicon Valley tech companies like General Motors-backed Cruise and Alphabet's Waymo have given up on what's considered Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous capability. But the October closure of AV startup Argo AI Inc. — backed by Ford and Volkswagen — suggests a reassessment of multibillion-dollar investments that have yet to pan out.
Both legacy automakers and tech-heavy EV brands like California-based Rivian and Lucid continue to work on driver-assistance features that are considered semiautonomous Level 2 or Level 3 systems. Those are already being deployed in vehicles to meet consumer demand.
"Scaling up deployment of robotaxi-type technology has taken longer than promised," said Philip Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who focuses on AV safety.
"Some companies are now pivoting to Level 2 and Level 3 instead, and I'm expecting that most automakers will end up taking that path. There is no reason to believe Tesla will have an easier time of it," Koopman said.