The Driverless Commute, presented by Dentons: China leapfrogs a laggard US; AV sector tightens its belt; Stop & Shop, Robomart partner on self-driving bodega

Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, presented by the global law firm Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to full autonomy.

1. Moon race

By next year China wants one-third of all cars sold to include limited, semi-autonomous technology, according to an ambitious government plan just released.

  • Other provisions of the blueprint—architected by the government’s science and technology ministry and whose principal author has advocated for insulating the country’s technology sector by restricting access of Western firms—include the rapid expansion of its national vehicle-to-everything infrastructure and an on-board connectivity target of at least 60 percent of new vehicles in the same period.

Are we seeing the early contours of a Sputnik moment?

  • For now, the United States remains the global leader in the race for autonomy, owing largely to its legacy technology and automotive sectors. But incumbency will carry America only so far, especially as its regulatory landscape remains a legal rat’s nest.
  • China leapfrogged a laggard US last year when it normalized testing protocols for autonomous vehicles across the country, and its government continues to signal a willingness to support automated car development through subsidies and tax deals or by constraining Western access to mapping and data technology.

Magnified by China’s larger global ambitions and growing trade tensions with the US, the world’s two most AV-forward nations are rapidly retreating into crouched postures of isolation. Ultimatelly consumers from both nations will suffer.

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2. When going it alone breaks the bank

It wasn’t long ago that self-driving firms, riding a self-perpetuating wave of hysteric marketing, were promising almost-immediate deployment.

Then Tempe happened, replacing the industry’s freshman-like idealism with the tough reality that making a car operate itself is really difficult. Not to mention exceedingly expensive. 

Now, chastened by the road-faring challenges of the previous 12 months, the once starry-eyed sector is signaling a sort of retrenchment from its free-spending past.

  • Don Walker, the chief executive of Canadian automotive supplier Magna, said this week at the Detroit Auto Show that the industry needs to tighten its belt on AV spending: “We have to reduce the amount of money everybody’s pouring in, because the end consumer basically wants cheap transporation,” he said. “Ultimately we need to be more efficient with the capital we deploy in the industry.”
  • The comments came as Volkswagen AG and Ford Motor Company announced the two were exploring the joint development of electric, self-driving technologies. 

3. The Auto(nomous) Bahn

  • Starting this fall, Stop & Shop, the supermarket chain, will begin offering its Boston customers the chance to shop from a sort of rolling, autonomous bodega. Unlike other self-driving grocery pilots, Stop & Shop has partnered with California-based Robomart to deploy fully-stocked autonomous pods from which customers can select goods and produce after first hailing the self-driving car by app.
  • A suburb of traffic-plagued Atlanta will get a multi-million test track for autonomous vehicles in partnership with Sprint.
  • has launched a robo ride-hailing app in China.
  • Self-driving startup Zoox has tapped a former Intel executive as its new CEO.

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Eric Tanenblatt

About Eric Tanenblatt

Eric Tanenblatt is the Global Chair of Public Policy and Regulation of Dentons, the world's largest law firm. He also leads the firm's US Public Policy Practice, leveraging his three decades of experience at the very highest levels of the federal and state governments.

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James Richardson

About James Richardson

James Richardson is a strategic communications counselor with 15 years’ experience advising presidential candidates, Global Fortune 500 executives, national nonprofits, and sovereign governments on strategic communications and reputation management. He helps lead Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs practice.

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