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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Driverless vehicles could eventually recircuit how we move and live, but until then, limo and bus operators have time to plan for a future that still involves luxury ground transportation.
Chris Jones, co-founder and chief analyst at Canalys, brought those messages to the Technology Summit where he looked at the long-range potential of a more mobile, connected society. He started off the agenda April 30 with a session, “How Our Industry Capitalizes On This New Frontier.” Jones’ firm does not favor any particular technology, OEM, or company, so it can independently look at all of them.
As with any massive technological revolution, the vision must travel a long road to reality.
Four major trends are driving this automotive revolution: Autonomous technology, connected communication, electric energy, and shared resources and access. “You’re witnessing different innovations happening from different parts of the technology industry as they move into the automotive space,” Jones told the audience of operators.
Among global megatrends affecting the ground transportation industry overall is the advent of megacities, as cities get bigger and busier. That leads to 1.3 million road deaths worldwide. “We have poor air quality and traffic congestion in our major cities around the world,” he said.
Another factor hastening a driverless world is the trend of young people not necessarily rushing out to get their driver’s license when they turn 16, 17, or 18, he said. “There are other ways for them to get around. Consumers want constant connectivity. They want to be on their social media all the time. And driving means they can’t do that. They’re stuck to their phones.”
Smart city programs are looking at ways to improve how people living and working in cities interact, and how transportation could make it easier to get around, Jones said.
Multiple companies are developing autonomous vehicles, including OEMs, Google, Intel, Apple, and Samsung, while buying in to support supply chains such as battery products. “They’ve already made acquisitions and are working together on different projects. They all have the same aim to solve problems.” He displayed a list of 50 companies worldwide pursuing autonomous vehicle technology with permits for testing vehicles on the road either with or without a human driver.
During his seven-and-a-half years in Palo Alto, Calif., Jones lived about half a mile from the Waymo offices, which is Google’s self-driving car unit. He could see small test cars everywhere as local residents got used to interacting with the vehicles. Jones cited Waymo as the leading company in terms of the most miles driven on test runs. The company is working on building a platform that OEMs can adapt or install. “They do intend to sell this platform and be a ridesharing operator themselves. They won’t build their own cars.”
Vehicle autonomy will likely be first deployed in robo-taxis offering self-driven shared rides, Jones said.
“They’ll be heavily used. The seats will be full as much as possible. When they’re not taking people, they’ll be be delivering goods around the city, 24/7, 365 days a week.”
You’ll see OEMs partnering with some of these ridesharing companies and car sharing ones as well, where a user rents a car on an hourly basis and can pay for and access them via an app, Jones said. “The OEMs are building out their fleet management skills and experience, and building up data to market. And many of the OEMs intend to launch their own robo-taxi fleets in the coming two years.”
Watch out for ongoing driverless projects among the 50 companies to be canceled or delayed, said Jones, who doubts predictions of full vehicle autonomy by 2021. Level Four vehicles will remain low in numbers and relegated to the robo-taxis in a few cities as legislation, regulation, and technology get fully worked out.
“The technology has to work and must be affordable and cheap enough to make it economically viable.” Among challenges:
• Regulations: “This is already a heavily regulated industry, so there’s a long way to go before it’s even legal to be on the road,” Jones said. “So that means every state in the U.S. and every country around the world has different laws,” which add to the complexity.
• Education: There’s a massive challenge to educate the legislators and the public as to what it really means, Jones said, as well as educate the drivers and potential customers. “I wouldn’t put my daughter in one of these cars today and send her off to school. The problem is we have humans in the equation as well who operate and use this. And in many cases they operate these level two systems the wrong way. Lawmakers need to understand the technology and they don’t yet. So there’s a lot of education the industry is trying to instill in the lawmakers around the world and in the U.S.”
• Insurance: How to figure out insurance and liability. “How will the passenger be insured? Who will be liable if there’s an accident? Is it the OEM who built that car? Is it the technology supplier, or the one for radar and the cameras?”
• Infrastructure: Autonomous vehicles will require revamped smart roads and signals. “It’s hard to imagine autonomous vehicles driving around the cities we live and work in today.” Parking lots or garages could be redeployed, possibly as service or charging stations. Geo-fencing will mean certain areas of cities have to be reconfigured for these vehicles.
• Trust: “We’ve got to trust the technology,” especially in light of past fatal accidents involving Uber’s radar system and Tesla’s semi-autonomous technology, Jones said.
• Ownership: “Will we own vehicles in the future? Young people are more likely to get a credit card with an app on their phones and use a ridesharing service, or use car sharing for weekends when they will drive themselves.”
• Charging: “The charging infrastructure is pretty immature in many cases around the world.” Jones suggested recharging lanes that provide a continuous flow of electric current, or parking spots with charging plates. “I think there are lots of opportunities out there.”
• Data: One concern among luxury transportation operators is client privacy and confidentiality about their customer information and travel data. “What would happen to the data that’s been collected, and who owns that data, where it would be stored?” Jones asked. “It’s a massive topic.” Legislators and regulators will need to understand and decide how to store and protect data. “It’ll probably go up into the cloud or into a server and be stored over there. So if you have Waymo and Google getting into this, why are they doing it? They want to sell advertising. I mean that’s their business model. So you’ve got to think about the intentions of the companies who are involved.”
• Vehicle Turnover: If a typical human driven car is built to last 10-15 years with 150,000 miles because it’s used only 3% of the time, what about 24/7 driverless cars that could rack up that much mileage in three years? Cities and auto manufacturers would need to work out the economics of a supply-and-demand scenario with fewer vehicles overall, but with much higher turnover rates.
As the automotive industry heads toward autonomy, along the way new technologies being developed will enhance the overall passenger experience.
One benefit of the move to autonomous vehicles is the emphasis on safety through driver assistance and convenience features such as adaptive cruise control. Chauffeured transportation is the safest form of ground transportation, and many fleet vehicles already contain safety amenities that will improve as technology evolves, Jones said. “This is something you guys can do as well, as you look to increase the safety features in your vehicles.”
As to TNCs, “What are Lyft and Uber doing that you can implement yourselves?” Jones asked. “What are they doing well that you can take on? And fast-forward a few years; you could become a taxi fleet yourself.”
Jones suggested operators visit autonomous driving training grounds to learn more about the technology and how to adapt to it. “Then find a way to differentiate in the on-demand new ecosystem so people you know will want this. Think about the driving system features you have in your vehicles today. Think how you could enhance that going forward; how that could be a differentiator; about the connectivity of your vehicles and how you’re passengers can be connected or are connected today. Think about how green your fleet is.” Is this something that makes you stand out?
Jones predicted a mix of fleet-owned and individually owned vehicles. “It has to show up in a great condition and be used 24/7. Somewhere, at some point in the day, they need to be cleaned. For every trip, it should be in a certain condition, so you also need sensors and cameras within the vehicle to observe the vehicle’s state. So you can imagine needing several services during the day to keep it to a standard that everyone expects.”
Driverless vehicles also will come in a variety of styles and designs, depending on the purpose of a trip. They could range from two seaters for quick trips, to four-seaters facing each other for a group, or larger vehicles with luggage compartments.
For riders with disabilities, there may be attendants to assist, Jones said. “Or there might be a premium service, having an attendant in the vehicle, as well. So all this stuff is really up for debate, and how we supply this is a big question. But the vehicles must be stable because lots of people will be using them.”
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Lastly, operators should be prepare their companies to partner, acquire, merge, and/or sell along the way to finding a service niche in an increasingly mobile transportation sector.
Vehicles increasingly are being connected to the outside world and within, said Jones, showing a slide photo of a Mercedes-Benz concept vehicle where all the seats have turned into the middle. “Every door, every window can become a display. And these people are having a business meeting as they’re driving on the freeway.”
The connectivity then plays into smart city integration, as thinking vehicles connect and interact with the city itself: Vehicle to vehicle, vehicle to city, vehicle to infrastructure such as traffic lights and signals, and communication within the vehicle itself. Riders can use apps to track available vehicles and get real-time schedules on arrivals, departures, and traffic flow. Someone could be driving towards a city and pay for parking as they’re driving along, so commerce from the vehicle is something coming as well.”
And in the most radical vision, Jones presented slides showing movable, driverless pods for small stores, coffee houses, and retail hubs that could move about cities either on schedule or on demand. They would operate much like the current clerk-less Amazon concept store, where you walk in, pick your products, and walk out as a scanner wirelessly connects with your smartphone to bill you.
It underscores how the old ding-a-ling ice cream truck still has a bright future.
• Zero: No automation at all. The vehicle has no control over itself.
• Level One: A driver is in control of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment, with the expectation the human driver performs all remaining aspects of dynamic driving tasks. This would include radar-based cruise control.
• Level Two: Two of the vehicle’s functions are working together, such as the steering wheel with acceleration and braking. The car can be kept in a lane and a certain distance from the car in front. But the driver must have control over the vehicle.
• Level Three: Requires a human taking over the control at some point when the vehicle can’t figure out how to get around an obstacle, whatever it may be. “So how does the human get notified they need to take over and start handling?” Jones asked. “What is that human going to be doing when they’re asked to take over? Are they going to be reading their phone? Are they going to be asleep? That is a really scary level the OEMs somewhat skip over and move straight to a level four solution.”
• Level Four: Geo-fenced scenario, such as a lane on a freeway, a central business district, or limited zone of movement.
• Level Five: No steering wheel, no pedals. The vehicles could be driving around on their own with no human interaction and no humans inside the vehicle. “That is the ultimate level of autonomy, driving anywhere with no restrictions.”
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