Daimler starts pilot testing of self-driving Mercedes taxis in the U.S.

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FRANKFURT — Daimler is testing autonomous taxis in the U.S. despite new CEO Ola Kallenius saying that the automaker will “rightsize” its spending level on self-driving technologies.

Daimler’s autonomous-driving technology will more likely be apply to commercial vehicles for freight companies on long haul routes than taxis, Kallenius told journalists at the company’s investor day in London last month.

The company has started self-driving taxi tests in California to gather user feedback, people familiar with the matter told Automotive News Europe.

“We have not put the project on ice. We are looking at where we can improve efficiency and gain synergies so we don’t unnecessarily duplicate or triplicate our development work,” said one of the people. “This pilot program is about capturing the user experience.”

The fleet includes about 30 vehicles, mainly Mercedes-Benz S-class sedans equipped with sensor arrays including long-distance, laser-scanning lidar, the person said, saying the test could last for several months.

Although the cars can pilot themselves, a safety driver is behind the steering wheel at all times. Although the number of users will initially be limited, the ultimate purpose of the pilot program is mainly to gain knowledge of what customers want or demand from a self-driving car.

Daimler has already been testing Level 4 cars on public roads in Stuttgart, Germany. The California tests are the first time that occupants who are not employed by the company ride in the vehicles.

Daimler Mobility, which has a captive finance unit, is assisting with its expertise in fleet management to better understand the difference in expectations from conventional taxis.

The sources gave no details of the location nor extent of the tests.

Daimler and Robert Bosch said in November 2018 that San Jose, California’s third-biggest city, would be the pilot city for trials of a highly automated driving ride-hailing service, targeted to begin during the second half of this year.

With its population expected to grow 40 percent in the next two decades, San Jose wants to prepare itself for a future in which autonomous cars hit the streets, the companies said.

Daimler and Bosch are looking to expand beyond their pilot program in San Jose, California, Sajjad Khan, the management board member for future technologies including driverless cars at Mercedes, told Automotive News Europe last month.

Even though it will continue with self-driving taxis, Daimler believes there is a greater chance of making money more quickly with autonomous driving applications for heavy trucks hauling goods than with passenger cars taxiing people.

The company will shift spending on self-driving taxi fleets to autonomous cars for private use in less complex highway traffic rather than in a chaotic urban environment.

Full scale deployment of the self-driving taxi business model would tie up a lot of capital with some uncertainties around the earnings potential, Kallenius said.

“At this juncture to be the first one out to do something like that at scale does not make sense,” he said. “We are not stopping developing the robotaxis. We will go into the market when it’s right, and we do not think that is in the short to midterm,” Kallenius said.

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