• Wed. Sep 21st, 2022

Robotaxi services need to go beyond to be car replacements, and maybe even connect

ByElla E. Kidwell

Apr 26, 2022

Most self-driving players are aiming to build a robotaxi (and even Tesla recently announced even more efforts on that front, though they also remain committed to selling a self-driving car to consumers.) None of them, however, don’t spend billions on this just to become a better Uber

, just like Uber, now many times the size of the old taxi industry, just wants to be a better taxi. To go beyond that, they have to become a replacement car, so that some consumers decide that rather than buying a car (especially initially, a second or a third car) they will rely on a set of services, in particular the robotaxi.

There are a number of techniques companies will need to use to win this game, including partnering with other modes of transportation. Also, especially in the early days when no one is big enough to rule everything, there will be a call for corporate cooperation. You might find yourself starting your ride in a Waymo and ending it in a Zoox – possibly with a human-driven van in between!

Robotaxi services will operate in service areas. That’s partly because managing a limited service area is a treatable but still lucrative problem, and because even if you reach the holy grail of driving everywhere, you don’t want your cars wandering hundreds of kilometers from the base.

Once you get customers to replace their cars, you’re tapping into the entire revenue stream of the entire automotive value chain. You are the car, the fuel, the maintenance, the insurance and everything else. That’s $5 trillion to play with around the world. If your customer still owns a car, they’ll be inclined to use it most of the time – in fact, they’re wasting it if they don’t. Competing with the “total cost” of owning a private car (about 50-80 cents/mile) is doable. It’s harder to compete with the added cost of a car you already own (mainly fuel, parking, and a low maintenance and depreciation charge).

Beyond the service area

If a customer wishes to travel outside the service area, there are a few options:

  • Tell them to do it themselves, but they won’t think you’re a good car replacement. However, they might accept you as a replacement for a 2nd or 3rd car.
  • Offer car-sharing services, bring the customer to their car-sharing car and offer a seamless transfer, as well as on the way back. They drive the car outside the service area like a rental car.
  • Offer a human-driven taxi service for the entire trip, or drive it to the edge of the service area where a human-driven vehicle is waiting. Slight delay for the transfer
  • Take them to public transit as they pass. It will be a public transit experience, but can be superior if the transit has a dedicated lane or is a high-speed train. Try to make it as transparent as possible.
  • Offer a self-service car rental, where the robotaxi can be driven by a human, but comes to them on its own. No transfer necessary.
  • Partner with another robotaxi service with an overlapping service area and arrange a seamless transfer (without waiting) within the overlap.
  • Pair up with another non-overlapping robotaxi service and create a seamless bridge between the two areas.

All of these are less than a door-to-door robotaxi ride, and many of them will cost more (particularly if you’re offering a human-driven rental car.) As such, they should be events quite rare. If a customer commutes outside of the service area every day, it’s probably not practical to target that customer for car replacement.

Although “transfer” is a dirty word in public transport, it doesn’t have to be the case with robotic transport. Transfers usually mean you have to travel to the transfer point, and there can be long walks and delays, as well as unpredictable transfer times. This does not need to happen with robotic transport. The vehicle you are transferring to can wait and your vehicle can park right next to it. Transfer can be measured in seconds, not minutes. The transfer location can be right along the optimal route, so there are no detours. The ride is no longer a non-stop door-to-door ride, but it can be very close, as needed for a believable car replacement.

Partnership and bridges

Although robotaxi companies may be seen as competitors, it may be in the interests of both to work together, especially when their service areas are not the same. Both companies will benefit from being able to improve service to their own customers. Later, when they face each other, the partnership could come to an end.

An interesting approach is the bridge between two distant service areas. Waymo and Cruise take care of San Francisco. Waymo is expected to do Silicon Valley but not necessarily San Mateo County in between. Another company might decide to cover Berkeley and Oakland across the bridge.

If we consider Waymo doing SF and Silicon Valley, they could set up a van bridge that would frequently pass between the south end of SF and the north of the valley. A rider wishing to travel between two points would drive a robotaxi in SF to the bridge point and board a waiting van departing in less than a minute for a seamless transfer. This van can carry 10 to 15 people, which makes it very efficient. So efficient, in fact, that it could have a human driver if needed. Most miles would end up being efficient and shared on the highway. At the other end, robotaxis would wait for each passenger destination – at peak times many might have the same destination. Again, there would be a seamless transfer with 20 feet of walking and no delay, approaching the desired qualities of the private ride that most people do.

With the van only handling the highway portion, most drivers would barely deviate from how they would drive a private car for the trip. The trip could actually be superior, with no need to drive, and the van having access to carpool lanes.

By using vans, rather than larger buses (or the train), vans can depart very frequently for a non-stop freeway ride. This is important to ensure that there is almost no waiting for the transfer. It can be changed slightly by adjusting the initial departure times – if the chosen van is only every 5 minutes, you delay the departure to arrive just in time (with some margin for traffic problems). delay was at home, not at a train station.

Google, the parent/brother of Waymo

operates a large fleet of buses to bring staff from San Francisco and other areas to their headquarters. Employees love the trip because it’s non-stop but it’s only at peak times and it doesn’t leave every minute. A bridge service like this could effectively manage the employees of many companies. In particular, it could do so at all hours of the day, not just at peak times. (Direct buses to businesses served by First Mile robotaxi might also do the trick, though they might not leave every minute, so they would limit trips to particular times.)

While most robotaxi efforts were early adopters of electric powertrains, a common criticism of the robotaxi world is that it’s still mostly about unshared cars. Approaches like this can introduce sharing for central miles without the usual trade-offs of shared transit that cause people to shun it for the more expensive choice of a private car.

In many cities, there are people who give up owning a car and rely only on public transport, cycling and even walking. Even more gave up owning a car when tools like Uber were added to the mix. Robotaxis, especially with services like the ones above, will be able to lure even more people away from owning a car, but the big question is how many?

In the comments, let us know what it would take for you to give up ownership of a 2nd car or all cars, depending on where you live.

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