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Robocar news roundup: Lyft and GM, Sidecar, the nature of competition, and CES

January 4, 2016
Image credit: Tony Webster via Flickr
Image credit: Tony Webster via Flickr

Lyft announced a $500M investment from GM with $500M more, pushing them to a $5.4B valuation, which huge but also just a tenth of Uber’s. This was combined with talk of a push to robocars: GM will provide a car rental service to Lyft drivers to start, but the speculation is that whatever robocar GM gets involved in will show up at Lyft.

With no details, Lyft’s announcement doesn’t really add anything to the robocar world that Uber doesn’t already add. It is GM’s participation that is more interesting, because it’s another car company showing they are giving more than lip service to the idea of selling rides rather than cars. (Mercedes and BWM have also started making significant motions in this area.)

My initial expectations for the big car companies were much more bleak. I felt that their century long histories of doing nothing but selling cars would impede them from switching models until it was too late. That might still happen, and will happen for some companies, but more might survive than expected. The story also contains some more pure PR comments about OnStar in the new Lyft rental cars. Lyft drivers are all linked in real time with their smartphones; OnStar is obsolete technology, named only to make it seem GM is adding something. GM is not a great robocar leader: they have been very slow even with their highway “super cruise” efforts, and the best they have done is partner with Rajkumar at CMU only to find Uber more successful at working with CMU folks.

Sidecar and where are you going?

Also frightening is last week’s news of the death of Sidecar. Sidecar was the 3rd place smartphone-hail company after Uber and Lyft, but so distant a third that it decided to shut down. Where Lyft can raise another billion, Sidecar could not get a dime. The CEO is a friend of mine and I’ve been impressed that Sidecar was willing to innovate — even building a successful delivery business.

Sidecar also makes their users tell Sidecar where they are going, which I think is important because it allows much better planning of the use of robocar resources. If you make customers say where they are going, you can do things like have deliveries in the trunk the passenger doesn’t even know about, have pricing set by drivers, directional goals set by drivers etc. You can also:

  • Send short-range cars (electric cars) for short trips
  • Send small (one or two person) cars when there is just one rider
  • Send cars not even capable of the highway if the trip doesn’t involve the highway
  • Pool riders far more efficiently, sometimes in vehicles designed for pooling that have 2-12 private “cabins.”

All of this is important to making transportation vastly more efficient, and in allowing a wide variety of vehicle designs, and a wide variety of power trains. It is only by knowing the destination that many of these benefits can be seen.

Uber lets you enter the destination but does not require it, and people do like having less to do when summoning a vehicle. (I always enter the destination when in places they don’t speak English, it’s a handy way to communicate with the driver.) The driver is not shown the destination until after they pick you up. This stops drivers from refusing rides going places they don’t want to go, which has its merits. It also has serious downsides for drivers, who sometimes at the end of their shift pick up a rider who wants to go 40 miles in the opposite direction of their home.

Even more frightening is what Sidecar’s death says about how much room there is for competitors in the robotaxi space. There are dozens of car makers competing for a new car customer, but San Francisco (the birthplace of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar) could not support 3 players in one of the world’s hottest investment spaces. Two unicorns, but nobody else.

When it comes to competition, the ride business is a strange one. For scheduled rides (which was most of the black car business before Uber) there are minimal economies of scale. A one-car limo “fleet” is still a viable business today, picking up customers for scheduled rides. They provide the same service as a 100 car limo-fleet, though they sometimes have to turn you down or redirect you to a partner.

For on-demand rides, there is a big economy of scale. I want a car now, so you have to have a lot of cars to be sure to have one near me. I will go with the service that can get to me soonest. While price and vehicle quality matter, they can be trumped by pickup time, within reason. Sidecar, being small, often failed in this area, including my attempt to use it on its last day on my way home from the airport.

Robocars offer up a middle ground. Because there is no driver who minds waiting, it will be common to summon a robocar longer in advance of when you want it. Once you know that “I’m leaving in around 20 minutes” you can summon, and the car can find somewhere to wait except in the most congested zones. Waiting time for a robotaxi can be very cheap, well under a dollar/hour, though during peak times, robotaxi owners will raise the price a little to avoid lost opportunity costs. (Finance costs will be under 20 cents/hour at 5% interest, and waiting space will range from free to probably 30 cents/hour in a competitive parking “spot market.”)

The more willing customers are to summon in advance, the more competitive a small player can be. They can offer you instant service when you actually are ready to leave, and that way they can compete on factors other than wait time. Small players can be your first choice, and they can subcontract your business to another company who has a car close by when you forget to summon in advance.)

CES in Las Vegas

I’m off to CES on Wednesday. This show, as before, promises to have quite a lot of car announcements. Rumours suggest the potential Ford/Google announcement could happen there, along with updates from most major companies. There will also be too many “connected” car announcements because companies need to announce something, and it’s easy to come up with something in that space that sounds cool without the actual need that it be useful.

This morning already sees an announcement from Volvo and Ericsson about streaming video in cars. This is a strange one, a mix of something real — as cars become more like living rooms and offices they are going to want more and better bandwidth, including bandwidth reliable enough for video conferencing — but also something silly, in that watching movies and TV shows is, with a bit of buffering, a high-bandwidth application that’s easy to get right on an unreliable network. Though in truth, because wireless bandwidth on the highway is always going to be more expensive than wifi in the parking space, it really makes more sense to pre-load your likely video choices to win on both cost and quality. I have been fascinated watching the shift between semi-planned watching (DVD rental, Netflix DVD queue, DVR, prepaid series subscriptions, watchlists and old-school live TV) and totally ad-hoc streaming on demand. While I understand the attraction of ad-hoc streaming (even for what you planned far ahead to watch) it surprises me that people do it even at the expense of cost and quality. Of course, there are parallels to how we might summon cars!

This post originally appeared on robocars.com.

Brad Templeton, Robocars.com is an EFF board member, Singularity U faculty, a self-driving car consultant, and entrepreneur... read more


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