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Exploring the Future of Autonomous Mobility: Insights from SXSW


This year's South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX had several panels focused on autonomy in mobility. Passenger vehicles and trucking are two key areas of focus in the autonomous mobility industry, showcasing the potential for increased efficiency and safety in transportation. As companies continue to explore new ways of utilizing autonomous technology, these pieces of the autonomy puzzle will play a significant role in shaping the future of transportation. One panel on each topic caught my eye: GM and Cruise’s Self-Driving Cars: from Science Fiction to Scale and Aurora, Schneider, & PACCAR’s Welcoming Our Autonomous Overlords. 

GM & Cruise

General Motors (GM) and its autonomous vehicle subsidiary, Cruise, are key players in the automotive industry, including autonomous vehicles. In the panel titled Self-Driving Cars: From Science Fiction to Scale, Mary Barra, Chair and Chief Executive Officer at General Motors, spoke with Kyle Vogt, Cruise CEO, Chief Technology Officer, President, and Co-Founder. The post about their discussion was interesting, but a number caught my eye; 400,000. That’s the miles of mapped highways Cruise and GM have for the US and Canada. That’s nearly half a million mapped miles where their Super Cruise technology has racked up more than 50 million miles of consumer use. Imagine the difficulty of keeping all 400,000 miles up-to-date. 

Assisted Driving

Super Cruise is an incredible feature, allowing hands-free driving on those mapped highways. It does a great job of assisting drivers on long stretches of road, a perfect aid for long-distance driving. Work zones, however, are explicitly listed as a place to avoid using Super Cruise.  

Of course, I can’t help but be excited for the upcoming Ultra Cruise, set to debut with the new ultra-luxury electric Cadillac CELESTIQ, bringing hands-free driving assistance to cities, too. It’s important to note that neither system is fully autonomous; they are not replacements for the driver. 

One thing I’m sure about is that those 400,000 miles of maps need to be kept up-to-date. That’s a lot of ground to cover, literally! Most of those 400,000 miles, according to the Super Cruise Compatible Roads map found on their website, are major highways. Smaller roads, particularly those in cities such as where Ultra Cruise will be usable, will add more mileage to the function’s capabilities, and therein even more complexity to manage. 

Autonomous features are growing more common in today’s cars. As the number of vehicles capable of semi-autonomous functions increases, the need for accurate and up-to-date maps grows with it. 

Aurora, Schneider, & PACCAR


Welcoming Our Autonomous Overlords was a fun name for an interesting panel. Featuring  Sterling Anderson, co-founder and chief product officer at Aurora, Rob Reich executive VP and chief administrative officer at Schneider, John Rich  CTO of PACCAR at Paccar, Inc., as well as TechCrunch’s transportation editor Kirsten Korosec. The three companies are interconnected by working together through partnerships. The panelists discussed the importance of working together and the benefits of autonomous trucks, including non-stop, 24-hour driving, which could significantly improve the efficiency of the transportation of goods while reducing costs. 

Cost abatement isn’t the only value autonomy will bring to trucking. For years now, the industry has suffered from a severe shortage of drivers, one that is only expected to get worse with time. Autonomy can fill in the holes left in the trucking industry when drivers exit their jobs. The panelists discussed the possibility that truck drivers would still be employed, but the scope of their work would change. The trucks would drive themselves through the longest, most time-consuming portions of their journey and drivers would join the truck closer to its destination, to interact with the customers at the endpoint. Since many drivers currently only return home an average of once a week, this would bring about a revolutionary change in the trucking industry and perhaps even draw more drivers to it. 

Trucking vs Ridesharing

When it comes to trucking versus ridesharing, the panelists described it as a matter of asset management. Hailing services need to have vehicles available when customers need them. This leads to assets idling and waiting to be put into service. Trucking sees every asset being utilized to the fullest, without needing to idle around waiting for a customer. Trucks working around the clock are getting maximum use, and therefore value, out of the asset. However, the panelists do acknowledge that one day they may expand into smaller vehicles since the systems created for their trucking endeavors will work for smaller vehicles as well. 

Much like the early internet, the panelists see the current state of autonomy in mobility as a period of serious innovation, the sort that precedes a new technology becoming ubiquitous. 

Into the Future

SXSW provided an interesting glimpse into the current state of the autonomous mobility industry and highlighted the continued growth and development of autonomous vehicle technology. The discussions around autonomous mobility showcased the potential for increased efficiency, safety, and cost savings that these technologies can bring. The upcoming Ultra Cruise feature further underscored the importance of accurate and up-to-date maps for autonomous driving assistance systems. Meanwhile, the panel featuring Aurora, Schneider, and PACCAR shed light on the potential for autonomous trucks to address the industry's driver shortage and improve asset management. The autonomous vehicle industry seems poised for continued innovation and growth in the years to come.