Will AI-Powered Robots Take Over Self-Driving Cars? The Potential is There

So why do we keep focusing on, and obsessing over, artificial intelligence? Use and demand for generative AI solutions is compounding and accelerating; and it may fill some of the gaps between where we stand now and how we can accomplish far-away goals. One of them could be fully autonomous vehicles on our roads that would be electric, safe, efficient, and eventually better than what humans have been capable of so far. Generative AI is not just about creating new content for websites and reports; no, there’s a lot more potential.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Nvidia Corp. and other big technology names are giving it a shot by investing in a business that’s developing human-like robots, according to people with knowledge of the situation, part of a global surge to find new applications for AI.

Figure AI, a startup that will be building humanoid robots, is getting $675 million in a funding round that includes Nvidia, OpenAI (creator of ChatGPT), Bezos’ Explore Investments LLC, Microsoft, Intel’s venture capital firm, Samsung, and LG Innotek, an affiliate of LG Group. Figure AI is an AI-power robot that can act like a human and be used to perform tasks that real humans don’t want to do. These tasks could be dangerous and unstable compared what human workers are usually willing to do these days.

Bezos had committed $100 million through Explore Investments LLC. Microsoft is investing $95 million, while Nvidia and an Amazon-affiliated fund are each providing $50 million, according to the sources. It’s part of a funding round that carries a pre-money valuation of roughly $2 billion, they say.

Tesla has its own walking, working robot project in development. Called Optimus, it’s being designed to help eliminate dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks for humans. CEO Elon Musk has said that the AI-powered robot could end up being the electric automaker’s biggest source of business long term. It will start out working in Tesla’s factories. Musk recently said that Tesla could start shipping units of Optimus as early as next year.

Boston Dynamics, a company that has been working on this technology for over a decade, was acquired by South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co., in 2021. Founder Marc Raibert recently said that he believes Musk’s ambitions are being driven by seeing the progression of Boston Dynamic’s bipedal robot, Atlas. 

As for robotics taking over cars through autonomous vehicles, that won’t be showing up anytime soon. You can take a ride in one of these robot-taxis in San Francisco and Phoenix, but the number of available rides is sparse as safety and traffic congestion concerns tend to keep them very limited. As for mass market, the autonomous vehicle industry will not develop a fully self-driving car until 2035, according to a prediction from research firm GlobalData.

AI has always been part of factory robotics, self-driving car technology and testing, and aerial drones — which so far have been the most advanced and useful robotic transport option. Advanced sensors and AI algorithms can help vehicles detect and respond to potential dangers faster and more accurately than humans, along with other benefits from the technology.

Udacity, an online training conpany, recently posted a commentary on these issues with input from its CEO Sebastian Thrun, one of the founders of Google’s self-driving car program that was later named Waymo.

AI-powered robotics has the potential to address some of the safety concerns of vehicles being on roads without human drivers who can take control of the car. AI has vast potential for replicating the human driving experience, which would include multiple levels of sensory data awareness for bringing the car to a halt to protect pedestrians, bicyclists, and those riding in cars and trucks.

According to Udacity, some of the benefits of tapping into AI’s potential include: these self-driving cars can operate more efficiently, optimizing acceleration, braking, and routing to reduce fuel consumption. Eco-friendly practices can be enabled to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as deploying efficient driving routes. Another benefit: company employees can be working in their cars, or they can take time off for rest and rejuvenation by not having to drive to and from work, or while going to a business meeting or training session.

Would that mean robots would be driving these cars? It is a possibility. Automakers are always tapping into the latest mobility innovations, which is demonstrated in January of each year at the CES convention in Las Vegas. At CES 2024, the main topics presented by automakers and suppliers included autonomous driving, generative AI, EV charging, flying cars, drones, sensors, and micro-mobility, according to DigiTimes Asia.

Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, has a lot of hope for the potential of generative AI.

“First, on the hardware side, one great example is LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging sensors. Originally big, bulky, and expensive, LiDAR uses laser pulses to measure distance and create 3D point clouds of the surrounding environment.
A decade ago, a LiDAR unit cost about $100,000 and was the size of a coffee-can, Today, they’ve shrunk down 1000-fold and suppliers like Luminar have reduced the cost 100-fold, supplying units to carmakers today for $1,000, with a goal of $500 in the next few years……..
“Second, in the realm of software, it’s all about advances in AI. The same breakthroughs that have enabled applications using GPT-4 to see, listen and speak, are now being applied to robotics.

These humanoid compatriots will be equipped with AI-enhanced vision systems, offering precise image recognition, which aids in activities like component sorting and quality checks. AI’s predictive capabilities ensure machinery functions efficiently, foreseeing potential malfunctions, hence economizing maintenance.

Generative AI in particular magnifies a robot’s adaptability. Using reinforcement learning, they can autonomously refine their operations. This self-improvement, combined with decision-making algorithms, optimizes their actions. Additionally, by mimicking human interactions, be it verbal or non-verbal, they seamlessly blend into sectors like healthcare, fostering trust and collaboration,” Diamandis just wrote in his blog.

And in other news…………

Global EV sales: Interested in how electric vehicle sales are doing worldwide? Our World in Data just released a study tracking those numbers from 2010 through 2022, citing International Energy Agency data. Globally, around 1-in-5 new cars sold was electric in 2022. In Norway, the share was well over 4-in-5, and in China, it was around 1-in-3. In the U.S., 8% of new vehicles sold were plug-ins during 2022. Worldwide, it was 14%. Of that global total, 10% were battery electric vehicles and 4% were plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

As for who will play the dominant role in global EV sales, journalist Will Lockett sees BYD continuing to throw off Tesla. While Tesla is getting ready to build its affordable hatchback, the Model 2, at a Mexico factory, BYD is well on its way. BYD is looking to build their own Mexico plant and enter the US market with EVs that make the Model 2 look outdated, he said. Affordable models like the BYD Dolphin were how the Chinese automaker was able to bump off Tesla by units sold. That includes plug-in hybrid and battery electric models for BYD, while Tesla is battery electric only.

For a look at the global big picture, OWID reports that there were a total of 72.86 million new vehicles sold worldwide in 2022. That broke out to 62.66 million non-electric cars sold that year, and 10.20 were electric cars. That would include passenger cars and commercial vehicles, according to Statista.

Ford halts Lightning pickups: Ford said on Friday it had halted shipments of all 2024 model year F-150 Lightning electric pickup trucks. The Detroit automakers needs to perform quality checks for an issue it did not specify. Production was halted and Feb. 9, and the automaker didn’t say when it would start again. Ford recently cut prices on its Mustang Mach-E electric SUV by up to $8,100 after sales fell sharply in January.

Volvo reducing ownership of Polestar: Volvo announced plans to sell 62.7% of its stake in EV maker Polestar as it looks toward the next stage of its transformation. Volvo Cars board proposed planning to distribute the 62.7% stake on Friday. If approved, the move will result in an 18% stake in Polestar. Parent company Geely, with a 78.7% stake, had already confirmed it intends to vote in favor of the stock sale.

Clean Transportation and Energy Resources to Tap Into, Ford Cuts Prices on Mustang Mach-E

ACT Shipper-Carrier Connect:
Ports are at the heart of the global economy these days. They’re also a major source of smog and greenhouse gas emissions from the ships, trucks, and logistics providers serving them. GNA, a TRC company and organizers of the Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo, just announced the inaugural ACT Shipper-Carrier Connect event, taking place May 22-23, 2024, in Las Vegas, co-located with ACT Expo, to unite shippers, carriers, and logistics providers to shape the future of sustainable freight. Sustainability is a new business priority for freight and logistics companies, GNA says, and this event will showcase how effective collaboration can enable shippers and carriers to achieve shared economic and environmental sustainability goals.

Eco-friendly cargo ships:
Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York and New Jersey, Georgia Ports (Savannah and Brunswick), Seattle-Tacoma, Houston, Oakland, South Carolina Ports (Georgetown and Charleston), Port Metro Vancouver, and Virginia (Hampton Roads region) are the largest ports in North America, according to Shipa Freight. One of the big frustrations for those advocating ports to reduce their emissions significantly is getting shippers to cooperate. They’re international companies, many times from China, Denmark, and other countries, and outside U.S. laws. Danish-company Maersk and other shipping companies are trying out methanol, ammonia, and hydrogen as viable alternative fuels. Canadian company Ballard Power has been very involved with these test projects by providing its fuel cell modules. The first vessels to embark on their maiden voyages last year were Norled’s MF Hydra — the world’s first liquid hydrogen-powered ferry — operating in Norway; FPS Waal, a retrofitted cargo vessel expected in service on the Rhine River in Holland; and Zulu06, the first inland cargo transport vessel on the river Seine in France.

Another profitable year for Clean Harbors:
Clean Harbors, Inc. just reported its ninth consecutive quarter of year-over-year growth; and that revenue was up 4.7% year over year in the fourth quarter — with the same number for all of 2023, according to WasteDive. The U.S.-based company is a provider of environmental and industrial services, including hazardous waste disposal for clients that include companies, small waste generators, and federal, state, provincial and local governments — including serving major ports. Safety-Kleen, a Clean Harbor company, is where much of that happens.

European Alternative Fuels Observatory:
For those wondering how alternative fuels and vehicles have been doing in Europe, go to this website to have your questions answered. If you’re interested in learning how many battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell, propane-powered, and LPG- and CNG-powered vehicles are on their roads, go visit this site. You can compare by country, overall vehicles and fleet vehicles, infrastructure, legislation and incentives, and other useful information. European Alternative Fuels Observatory is the European Commission’s knowledge center, offering a wealth of data on alternative fuels in Europe.

The future of used EV batteries:
A documentary that I recently watched forecasted that planet Earth is heading for big trouble with climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, air pollution, over-population and overdevelopment, and landfills full of waste, driving the destruction. One of the examples given in the film was how bad disposal of used batteries from increasing electric vehicle ownership has been getting. For fleets and individual EV owners, staying current on options they have to make sure they’re battery packs are recycled or disposed of sustainably and efficiently is a good idea. Resource guides have been presented by Car and Driver and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that are very much worth checking out.

Renewable fuel conferences coming up:
Advanced Biofuels USA’s calendar of events is the place to go for upcoming conferences on biofuels, renewable natural gas, algae, and other topics shaping the future of advanced fuels coming from feedstocks, manure, and organic waste materials. British event planner Active Communications International is hosting the Future of RNG North America 2024 that will be taking place in Houston on March 20-21, 2024. Experts and industry leaders will delve into case studies and success stories, showcasing how RNG projects have already revitalized the biogas world and contributed to energy independence. (And don’t forget that the RNG Coalition conference will be taking place Dec. 9-12, 2024, in Dana Point, Calif., at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club.)………. Microalgae and macroalgae production, harvesting, extraction and new markets are being explored in a series of monthly webinars.  Seaweed-based technologies have been proven outside the lab as scalable and economically feasible. Learn how other microalgae and macroalgae solutions are reaching commercial algae production and new markets…………. ABLC 2024 will be taking place March 13-15, 2024, in Washington, DC. It’s connected series of seven conferences and events in total on the most important issues in the circular bioeconomy right now. These include the Advanced Biofuels Summit, the Renewable Chemicals & Biomaterials Summit, the Green Hydrogen Summit, the Advanced Agriculture Summit, the Sustainable Aviation Summit, and the Biogas & RNG Summit, and the Circular Bioeconomy Policy Forum. In addition, there will be special events, forums, and workshops.

Cal Fleet Advisor assisting fleets in ZEVs:
For fleets needing to integrate zero emission vehicles and all that goes with it, the Cal Fleet Advisor program can be very much worth looking into. This free assistance program has helped more than 300 California fleets, and is available now for owners and operators of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. It’s part of the state’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP). HVIP is administered by CALSTART on behalf of the California Air Resources Board. It offers a personal advisor, resources to consider, and funding process assistance.

More about hydrogen and fuel cell transportation:
Need more information on hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles? For one, hydrogen stores and transports energy produced from other resource. See the ‘7 Fun Facts on Hydrogen & Fuel Cells’ at NREL for more information. One of the major challenges has been that hydrogen has very high energy for its weight, but very low energy for its volume, so new technology is needed to store and transport it. And fuel cell technology is still in early development, needing improvements in efficiency and durability. This video provides insights into where it’s going — as does the California Hydrogen Leadership Summit. That conference will be taking place June 16-17, 2024, at the Sheraton Grand in Sacramento. During “Hydrogen Decarbonizing Transportation,” speakers will take a close look at policy changes needed at both federal and state levels to empower the use of hydrogen fuel to help make transportation more climate friendly. They’ll explore the technologies offered by leading vehicle manufacturers and dig into the air quality regulations, such as the Advanced Clean Trucks and Advanced Clean Fleets rules that will require investment into hydrogen-fueled zero-emission transportation technologies.

The absolute importance of having safe water
As a few experts have said to me, if you’re interested in tracking the future of planet Earth, then pay attention to three areas: fossil fuels, energy, and water. Actor Matt Damon has been promoting the organization and website Water.org that was founded more than a decade ago by Damon and Gary White, a civil and environmental engineer. Their goal has been to work independently to help break down barriers between people in need and access to safe water. About 2.2 billion people lack access to safe water. The global nonprofit aims to bring water and sanitation to the world.

And in other news……………..

Price cuts on Mustang Mach-E: Ford Motor Co. said yesterday that it had cut prices on its Mustang Mach-E electric SUV by up to $8,100 after sales fell sharply in January. It now has a starting price of $39,895, down from $42,995. The higher-end Mach-E GT will cost about $7,600 less, at $52,395. The extended-range premium version will drop in price by $8,100 to $48,895. Ford and other automakers, including Tesla, have had to cut sticker prices to get car shoppers to take that option more seriously.

Rivian cutting workforce down: Startup electric SUV and pickup truck maker Rivian said it would cut its workforce by 10% and that it’s EV production forecast widely missed estimates. The company says that it’s been hurt by downtime for factory upgrades and slowing demand for electric vehicles due to high interest rates. That could mean producing 57,000 new vehicles this year, down from the 81,700 units in the initial plan for 2024.

Franchised Dealers at the Crossroads on Electric Vehicles, Truck CEOs Speaking at ACT Expo

How do you get through to skeptical consumers who’ve never purchased an electric vehicle, and have held onto some false assumptions on the technology? The Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) and the National Automotive Dealers Association (NADA) launched an innovative online EV sales training certification program to empower dealership staff, at the NADA Show 2024 in Las Vegas on February 1.

The training program is called ElectrifIQ, and it’s been structured to prepare dealers to address classic consumer questions: charging times and costs, driving range per charge, total cost of ownership, available incentives, and more. CSE is tapping into experience managing statewide EV incentive programs. The San Diego, Calif.-based organization has already done so with state dealer associations in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Oregon on EV training, according to NADA. Dealers can tap into the staff training program for $199 per person or $495 per dealership.

It’s been a steep hill to climb since EVs started being available for sale through dealers in 2011. Nearly half of Buick’s U.S. dealerships, about 1,000, left the brand last year after it offered buyouts for those who didn’t want to invest in selling electric vehicles. They’re not the only dealers to do so, and it’s not all about selling EVs. U.S. franchised dealers have been preparing to retire and sell off assets to family members or competitors for a few years now. But EVs have been the tipping point for many.

If you take a look above at 2023 sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, you can see that some brands and their franchised dealer networks will likely be more interested in trying out ElectrifIQ than others.

Kelley Blue Book’s recent study on U.S. sales of EVs reported that there were 1,189,051 new EVs that were put into service in the U.S. last year. That includes light-duty passenger vehicles, with medium-to-heavy-duty commercial EVs not counted in this report. That included 884,475 total for the top 10 sold, or 74.38% off the total.

Of the new EVs sold in the U.S. last year, 59.3% of all of these vehicles were sold by Tesla and Rivian — who don’t have dealer networks. Both companies use a direct-to-consumer sales model. Tesla had sales of 654,888 vehicles sold in the U.S. last year, three of which you can see in the Top 10 chart above. The fourth vehicles was the Model S, which had 16,466 units sold in the U.S. during 2023. Tesla continued to hold its dominant pace in the American market, with 55.1% of the new light-duty electric vehicles sold last year.

As for the top five non-Tesla automakers in EV sales last year………

  1. Ford also sold 7,672 E-Transit vans.
  2. General Motors decided to bring the Bolt back with strong demand showing up for the car and SUV versions after the company had decided to stop production. As for the other EVs, it was thin for GM: 482 Chevy Blazer SUVs and 461 Chevy Silverado pickup trucks were sold in the U.S. last year.
  3. Hyundai’s Ioniq 5 crossover SUV led the way, followed by the Ioniq 6 sedan which came in at 12,999 units sold, and its Kona small SUV coming in at 10,644. The Korean automaker’s Kia and Genesis brands are also selling a decent volume of EVs for being so new to EVs.
  4. Southern California-based Rivian is targeted at fleets and consumers. The R1S SUV was the market leader, followed by 17,726 R1T pickup trucks and 7,679 EDV 500/700 cargo vans.
  5. BMW’s i Series has been revamped more recently to be based on lovers of luxury and sports cars — and willing to pay for it. The German automakers’ market leader in the US EV space has been the i4 Gran Coupe; followed by the iX SUV at 17,301 units sold last year; the i7 luxury sedan at 3,400; and 2,133 of the i5 luxury sedan.

And in other news……….

ACT Expo just announced that top truckmaker CEOs will be speaking at the annual event in May, this time at the Las Vegas Convention Center. ‘CEO Roundtable on Scaling Vehicle Electrification’ will include:

Art Vallely, President, Penske Truck Leasing (Moderator)  
Mathias Carlbaum, Chief Executive Officer, Navistar 
John O’Leary, President and Chief Executive Officer, Daimler Truck North America 
Jonathan Randall, President, Mack Trucks 
Peter Voorhoeve, President, Volvo Trucks North America 
Jason Skoog, General Manager, Peterbilt & Vice President, PACCAR  

For an overview of this year’s ACT Expo, click here.