Blog by Robbert Lohmann, Chief Commercial Officer
Unsurprisingly the company that has been delivering autonomous shuttles since 1997 is arguing that the future is still autonomous shuttles.
CES 2019 in review:
the future of autonomous vehicles ain’t what it used to be
And that is a good thing. In fact, that is a really good thing. It might just mean that we – as passengers – won’t be perpetually gridlocked in future cities, but actually still able to move and get somewhere. It might also mean that we – as residents – are able to actually enjoy living in a city, being able to allow our kids to play outside without having to worry about high intensity traffic on every single street. It might ultimately mean that we – as species – make it into the next century without having to colonize Mars. Ok, sorry. I exaggerated; we aren’t going to be able to colonize Mars and need to make it work here.
CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) has evolved into a major event for anything associated with mobility. Where the first car debuted at the show 20 years ago, in 2016 car manufacturers filled 10% of the exhibition space. Today, they are joined by public transit concepts and operators, making CES a mobility show first and foremost. A mobility show where companies are eager to show innovation, technology and the future of autonomous vehicles.
What is the future of autonomous vehicles you ask? To answer that question we need to look into what the future of autonomous vehicles was in the first place and how this contributed to changing its own destiny – an ongoing process as we aren’t quite there yet. With this process being a self-reinforcing mechanism, it is fascinating how every effort towards the old future actually contributes to the new future. Confusing? Hopefully not anymore once you finish this read – and if you still are, I must be confused to the point that it only makes sense for myself.
What the future used to be
There are two parts to what the future of autonomous vehicles used to be: autonomous and vehicles. Where autonomy is something of the last 20 years, with a peak during the last 10, vehicles are something of the last 100 years. So let’s rewind and start there.
When it comes to vehicles Henry Ford’s vision in the early 1900s is to blame. Yes, blame. It sparked good things like mass production, greater mobility and economic growth, but also some that are not so positive: our addiction to cars for mobility and as status symbol. Cities today have become what they are as a result of urban designers working to accommodate our cars. For the last century they have been creating cities to please people in cars instead of people in houses. It resulted in massive highways and major streets in uninspiring grid lay-outs for ever further sprawling cities. With the increased urban density, the growth of economic activities and ever higher demand for mobility, the streets that were originally designed as the arteries to allow the flow of economic blood to the heart of the city are now clogged. The patient dying, or at least already admitted to the hospital, in many countries around the world.
Now that we all are aware of the negative aspects of cars, in terms of accidents, pollution, capacity and space occupied, we are trying to resolve the issue by introducing autonomous ones. A magic ‘cure-all’ that will unclog our pipes. Sadly, autonomy actually only addresses the accident part. Autonomy should (help) avoid us as human beings making the stupid mistakes, or exhibiting our creativity if you will, that lead to unpredictable situations with undesired outcomes. Making them electric in the process ensures the pollution part is addressed as well, allowing us all to breathe more easily. Literally, not figuratively.
The vision of electric, autonomous cars within 2 years has been communicated for the past 10 years. It has been embraced by automotive companies, tech companies, service companies, app-creating companies as well as the grocery store around the corner. No kidding, by the way: there are several companies now promoting home delivery of your veggies to avoid you having to walk too far to maintain a healthy diet. The deadline when we will have self-driving vehicles is continuously pushed forward, in part due to a ‘fuzzy regulatory picture’. The delay results from governments lagging and legislation not allowing it yet. Right. No, wrong! Even when legislation would already allow for it, a manufacturer needs to proof (on paper first and foremost) that it’s autonomous vehicle is actually just as safe as a car, or preferably, a public transit vehicle.
The leaders in the industry now admit it will take (much) more time before autonomous cars are here: operations are/were temporarily suspended, safety drivers reinstated and even – drumroll please – ‘drivered autonomous vehicles’ have been announced. The perceived leader in the race towards driverless cars now announced they will never be able to drive in all conditions.
As a result the focus have shifted towards autonomous last mile transit. Which makes sense as electric, autonomous cars unfortunately don’t address the capacity and space occupied. Sharing does. And allows to focus on a limited operation design domain, making introduction within the promised time frame of 2 years more realistic. The wave of autonomous shuttle announcements by car manufacturers and automotive suppliers should thus not be surprising: Volkswagen’s Sedric (March ‘17), Toyota’s E-Palette (January ’18), ZF’s e.Go (July ’18), Mercedes’ Urbanetic (September ‘18) and Bosch providing the components for such shuttles (January ’19). Who’s next?!
Welcome to what the future is.
What the future is
So yes, unsurprisingly the company that has been delivering autonomous shuttles since 1997 is arguing that the future is still (!) autonomous shuttles. The current forecast for the market by research firm Roland Berger, perhaps a tad bit optimistic (an understatement if ever), projects the market at 1 million autonomous shuttles by 2020. We will eventually get there. Seriously though, the trend that is becoming obvious now, shows how far ahead of our time 2getthere was at the time we delivered our first system (at Schiphol Airport). And second (at Rivium), third (at Floriade), fourth (at Masdar City), and so and so forth. We were so far ahead that the autonomous shuttle at business park Rivium will be entering the third generation in 2019, having transported over 8 million passengers in the last 20 years over merely a 1.8 kilometer connection to/from the business park.
In addition to the car manufacturers trying to get in on the action, numerous start-ups are trying to enter the market as well. Restricted to demonstrations with stewards on-board at this time, they face the same challenge as the car manufacturers do and 2getthere did previously: how can we proof safety on paper first and foremost to be certified and allowed to carry members of the general public?
In the process the automotive industry is taking a different approach relative to the start-up companies. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, they are trying to learn from existing applications, avoiding being donkeys by making the same mistakes. 2getthere in turn is trying to avoid learning monkeys how to climb, while also welcoming the competition to help the market mature more quickly. As such we are actively cooperating where mutually beneficial for the companies, but also not afraid to compete head-to-head based on experience.
One of the areas of cooperation concerns the framework for approval of autonomous shuttle applications. Several countries and their authorities, including the Netherlands (RDW), Singapore (LTA) and Dubai (RTA) have taken a leading role in this process. The consensus amongst the leaders in the industry is moving towards a safety approach based on systems rather than vehicles and adopting best practices from the rail industry to enable certification. When, not if, authorities step up and set strict requirements to be met (on paper first and foremost) before being allowed on the road and carrying members of the general public, it will be major step towards market maturation. It might appear to be slowing down the market in the short term as it will essentially kill all the demonstrations worldwide, but lead to economically viable applications in the longer terms as the safety steward on-board really won’t be required any more.
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else
Baseball fans recognized the Yogi Berra quote adapted for the blog title. And the paragraph title is another one equally applicable to autonomous vehicle developers. 2getthere has known where we are going since we started the development of the very first system in 1995. We are still heading in the same direction, believing in a city of the future that features less vehicles, while accommodating a higher urban density and mobility all the same. It’s not magic, it’s public transit. With autonomous shuttles for the first and last mile.