By Rebecca Sands, Content & Project Manager, Autonomy

Click here to watch a recording of “Self-driving Cars and Shuttles: Tortoise and Hare?” in partnership with BloombegNEF.

Imagine it is 2030, in a large urban area, and autonomous vehicles are an integrated part of inhabitants’ daily mobility patterns. Are there more robotaxis or autonomous shuttles on the road? It was this central question on the models that should and will define the technology’s role in mobility that formed the basis for the Urban Mobility Company’s third and final workshop in partnership with BloombergNEF, “Self-driving Cars and Shuttles: Tortoise and Hare?”. Welcoming experts Jinghong Lyu, Intelligent Mobility Analyst at BloombergNEF, Jari Honkonen, Project Manager at Forum Virium Helsinki, Prashanthi Raman, Director of Global Government Affairs at Cruise, Artem Fokin, Head of Business Development – Self-driving Group at Yandex, and Marla Westervelt, Director of Policy for the Commission on the Future of Mobility, here are the discussion’s key takeaways.

It is not the ‘What’ but the ‘Why’

According to poll respondents, 12% expect to have their first autonomous experience be a ride in a robo-taxi, 52% in a driverless shuttle, and 36% receiving a delivery via a driverless robot. Yet for all panelists, the strong consideration for AV development should not be on what the exact technology might look like, or which one will reach scale before the others, but why it is being developed. “Autonomous technologies are one tool to help us get to what the mobility ecosystem ought to look like,” explained Marla. “They are not the goal itself.”

In the United States for example, Jinghong pointed out that 20% of vehicle trips are under 2 miles, and 50% of trips are under 5 miles. So is there a ‘best’ technology or modality to meet these needs through AVs? For Artem and Jari, this is highly dependent upon the specific characteristics of a locality. “The goal of autonomous technologies in the city should be to augment public transport systems,” clarified Jari. “Of course robo-taxis and other single occupancy AVs in urban areas have the potential to create more congestion, but it is not so black and white – if they can be used, for example, as first-mile last-mile options to help commuters reach public transport systems, this is obviously a great application of the technology.” While the pandemic has illuminated the intense need for moving people from point A to B safely and efficiently, and the lack of solutions to meet this need, the specific modalities will vary largely on a country by country, locality by locality basis.

Lack of legislative readiness

On both sides of the Atlantic, panelists highlighted that the legislative framework and regulatory landscape is not yet ready for the rapid deployment, or sometimes even the introduction of testing, of autonomous vehicles. For Jari, the regulatory issues across Europe have led to blockages in innovation, and at times a complete inability to test out new technologies on the road. Within the bloc, it was discussed that at least, a common level regulatory and policy framework needs to be established.

For Marla, many of the same challenges in the United States stem from a lack of legislative action on the matter. Although the COVID-19 crisis was a catalyst for more effective conversation on the current and future challenges facing urban transport systems, she sees a continued and intensified need for industry stakeholders to help push the legislative agenda. “The tech needs to be there to solve the acute problems,” she explained. “But we will never get where we need to go without the correct legislation in place.” As Prashanthi illuminated, regulatory structures such as California’s low carbon fuel standards program have allowed Cruise to meet its goals in terms of renewable energy sourcing for its vehicles. In order for autonomous technologies to truly pave the way for a smarter, more sustainable, and more inclusive mobility, other localities beyond California need to see the benefit of these kinds of schemes for AV development.

Defining the mission in order to define the technology

For Artem, a key tenet for autonomous development should be that the mission drives the technology. When it comes to Yandex’s activities, improving urban driving in metropolitan areas to make transportation safer, structured, and predictable is the mission that drives their tech development. In general terms, most of the same technologies can then be transferred to different autonomous modalities – shuttles, taxis, or delivery robots – and if companies work consistently to achieve their overarching goals, the technology is usually applicable to any task that requires driving.

For Cruise, many of their successes have also come from focusing on three central pillars of the company’s mission: solving the pollution, safety, and accessibility challenges of transportation today, putting a heavy focus on the experience as a human passenger rather than as a driver. Following these guiding principles, they have been able to achieve such targets as testing on an entirely electric, shared fleet of AVs powered by 100% renewable energy.

On the lookout for the window(s) of opportunity

Time and again throughout the discussion, panelists referred to the need for AV stakeholders to find the right window(s) of opportunity in order to remain relevant in the current moment and as our mobility habits evolve. “We always talk about AVs as being so future-focused, but we need to figure out how this technology can serve the needs of today,” emphasized Prashanthi. For Cruise, this has meant finding the right circumstances to help them decouple AV development with transportation-related emissions. “The future of mobility simply cannot rely upon the past limitations of fossil fuels,” she explained. Aforementioned are the California regulations that have allowed Cruise to run their electric fleet on renewable energy. As more climate-focused legislation hopefully enters into force, there will be an optimal window for AV stakeholders to get it right when it comes to aligning their activities with greater sustainability objectives.

For Artem and Marla, seizing opportunity means finding the sweet spot when it comes to aspects such as service and accessibility to enhance public transportation, the transition of the workforce, and regulatory structures that help companies thrive. Just like any new technology introduced into society and the subsequent business and workforce changes that it sets in motion, public and private actors will need to work closely to create the appropriate circumstances for an equitable uptake of AV technology.

When asked the final question of the discussion – “In 2030, will robo-taxis or autonomous shuttles be responsible for the most kilometers driven?” – panelists’ responses were indicative of how much more there is to consider beyond these specific technologies. Answers were not either or, as factors such as the geometry of cities, carbon neutral vs. carbon intensive trips, and concerns for congestion ruled out any one type of autonomous modality taking precedent over the other. In actuality, the hare in the AV race thus far may have been the mad rush to see a certain technology on the road first, or an investment goal obtained, but the tortoise will most certainly be the strength of the principles on which the technology should be founded.

Click here to watch a recording of “Self-driving Cars and Shuttles: Tortoise and Hare?” in partnership with BloombegNEF.