Earlier I posted my gallery of CES gadgets and included a photo of the eHang 184 from China, a “personal drone” able, in theory, to carry a person up to 100kg.
Whether the eHang is real or not, some version of the personal automated flying vehicle is coming, and it’s not that far away. When I talk about robocars, I am often asked “what about flying cars?” and there will indeed be competition between them. There are a variety of factors that will affect that competition, and many other social effects not yet much discussed.
The vision of many of us for robocars is a world of less private car ownership and more use of robotaxis — on-demand ride service in a robocar. That’s what companies like Uber clearly are pushing for, and probably Google, but several of the big car companies including Mercedes, Ford and BMW among others have also said they want to get there — in the case of Ford, without first making private robocars for their traditional customers.
In this world, what does it cost to operate these cars? How much might competitive services charge for rides? How much money will they make? What factors, including price, will they compete on, and how will that alter the landscape?
At the recent AUVSI/TRB symposium, a popular research topic was platooning for robocars and trucks. Platooning is perhaps the oldest practical proposal when it comes to car automation because you can have the lead vehicle driven by a human, even a specially trained one, and thus, resolve all the problems that come from road situations too complex for software to easily handle.
The cell phone ride hail apps like Uber and Lyft are now reporting great success with actual ride-sharing, under the names UberPool, LyftLines and Lyft Carpool. In addition, a whole new raft of apps to enable semi-planned and planned carpooling are out making changes.
Brad Templeton describes Tesla’s Autopilot as a ‘distant cousin of a real robocar’ that primarily uses a MobilEye EyeQ3 camera combined with radars and ultrasonic sensors. Unlike robocar sensors, Tesla doesn’t have a lidar or use a map to help it understand the road and environment.
What does that car of the future look like? There is no one answer; in this world, the car that is sent to pick you up can be tailored for your trip. The more people traveling, the bigger the car. If your trip does not involve a highway, it may not be a car capable for the highway.
Cheap robotaxi service under 50 cents/mile will make personal car transportation economically accessible. If the calculated cost drops to 30 cents/mile, or even 10 cents/mile in poorer economies, there’s potential for vast accessible to billions of new people. The market may already be saturated in the United States, which has vast car ownership, but the global average is about 15%. The car industry is facing a boom not a bust, from this technology.
Every year cars get a little better, but we’re in for a period of about 5 years in electric cars where each year’s new model is a lot better, and that’s trouble for people trying to sell them. To top it off, in a few years robocar features will start getting more serious (starting with the first no-supervision traffic jam assist), and so other parts of the car will also be on the Moore’s Law curve. How might a taxi model for robocars mitigate this?