GCV Mobility Q1 2022 supplement editorial by James Mawson, editor in chief, Global Corporate Venturing

The transport industry is shifting to electric, with the potential use of hydrogen and fuel cells in special cases.

It is also expanding the range of options people have to travel around from micromobility – any vehicle, usually electric, that weighs less than 500 kilograms – to those flying in space.

Both are good, fundamental changes in creating the right solution for the travel required at a lower cost and reduced carbon emissions.

But as venture capitalist Benedict Evans posted: “Autonomy is potentially much more profound and disruptive, and really does change what a car is – a car with no steering wheel is not really a car anymore.

“That raises as many questions as cars themselves did (it was much easier to predict mass car-ownership than to predict Walmart), and the tech itself remains full of questions. Can Tesla boot-strap its way through to something that works well enough? Will Waymo get there first going top-down? Are there winner-takes-all effects?”

Evans rightly said that “full autonomy may be as many decades away as general AI [artificial intelligence] (indeed it might require general AI!) but we’ll get all sorts of much more limited automation in the meantime.”

However, what is clear is how few incumbents are invested in autonomy happening and trying to shape its direction. A review of selected corporate-backed startups and spinouts by the Global Mobility Council chaired by George Kellerman, head of investments and acquisitions at Toyota’s Woven Planet, found relatively few, such as General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and SAIC, Nio and Li Auto in China, investing heavily, while others seem more content to partner with developers by offering their cars as platforms for trials.

If smart cars are analogous to smart phones in the late 2000s in the shift from manufacturing to software, applications and design as core criteria then it makes sense to see heavy investment in the sector coming from the big technology companies, such as Alphabet (Waymo), Intel (Mobileye), Baidu (Jidu and Apollo), and Tencent.

Tencent is building out the high performance computing facility used for the development of highly (level 3) and fully (level 4) automated self-driving vehicles in China by car makers BMW and Geely, while using corporate venturing to back promising startups, such as Oxbotica, a UK-based company making software for running autonomous vehicles in mines, and China-based Momenta and LinearX.

But autonomous driving can shift more than people. Autonomous delivery service startups, such as Starship Technologies and Nuro, are low-speed electric self-driving vehicle that transports packages on land, while peers, such as AutoFlightX, can carry payloads by air as electric vertical take-off and landing (evtol).

The final frontier will be to use soar into space and land at will but then, unlike ballistic missile payload trajectories, such hypersonic (more than five times the speed of sound) glide vehicles that can manoeuvre on the way to a target will create different challenges for regulators.