Robbert Lohmann, Chief Commercial Officer
The (non)sense of autonomous shuttle demonstrations
Welcome to 2getthere’s blog: a podium to share opinions and views of our industry, products and everything related to it. And being Dutch, there’s one thing we are not shy of – having an opinion. Everybody’s got them, we just express them a little more directly. OK, a lot more directly. To the point that if you aren’t used to Dutch people being Dutch, you’d think we are plain blunt. Which is not our intent.
This Blog has been started to provide a proper podium to share our opinion, with a little bit of humor along the way. The opinion shared is that of the author, not necessarily of the company, and is obviously completely objective and should be taken very very literally. Should you beg to differ on the view expressed, please don’t hesitate to engage and share this article with your thoughts on your social media channels: if there is one thing the Dutch appreciate it is a healthy debate – no sarcasm here.
Autonomous shuttles are everywhere
It often seems that autonomous shuttles are everywhere. And yet they aren’t. They are popping up around our major cities but mainly in the form of demonstrations that are run in a controlled environment with a “safety steward” onboard. Although we are now actually seeing the first contracts for applications operating permanently and filling daily transit needs, it is the huge number of demonstrations that have created the impression that autonomous shuttles are a commonplace commodity already. And, as there are so many, they should make (some) sense, right?
It is a question that we at 2getthere often ask ourselves, as there is a so much interest in demonstrations worldwide. At times it feels like not a week goes by, with yet another city, region or state issuing a tender for a 6-month or 1-year demonstration. What is the purpose of these demonstrations you may ask? To test passenger acceptance of autonomous vehicles? To verify the technology? To convince decision makers to move forward on an actual application? Or is it smart promotion/marketing tactic? Are they required or should we skip them altogether? Let’s dig a little deeper into this matter.
Passengers have made use of automated transit for years, with Automated People Movers featured at many major airports. Tampa Airport by itself has three different systems in daily operation. A lot of cities feature automated metros or even trains – just think of the monorail at Disneyland, or the 40+ year old Morgantown System or the Schwebebahn in Wuppertal that opened in 1900 (yes, that date is correct). A funicular. Ski-lift. Of course, a vehicle driving on a road instead of a track or rail is different. But when combining the experiences and the public acceptance of all these other transit systems, is it really logical to expect that the acceptance of autonomous shuttles would be very different?
If we do want to test the acceptance of autonomous shuttles properly, it should be tested in operational conditions, with large groups of passengers, all in a hurry, crashing into each other with faces buried in their smartphones. We want to see real behavior: Impatient people in a rush to get to work on time, on a hot sunny day, distracted by their phone or listening to music. The thing is, in a demonstration people often show a desired or ‘artificial’ behavior. During an unintended stop, there is no anxiety about getting to work late (and your boss screaming at you), no risk of the smartphone falling to the ground (missing out on the Pokémon you were just about to catch), rather the excitement of experiencing a fault in a system in the early stages of development. It is hard to analyse real behavior when passengers don’t use the system as part of their normal journey, in a normal way.
So, do demonstrations serve a purpose in verifying the technology? No, demonstrations don’t. Trials do. A Proof-of-Concept (POC) does. The difference? A demonstration is a show: a temporary display, typically at a high-profile site with limited demonstration hours. To verify that the technology test cases is created based on actual road data, a trial or Proof-of-Concept is conducted.
The site of the trial or the POC is a point of discussion – to say the least. Testing in the public space used to be an absolute no-go for other automated transit systems (and still is), but normal rules don’t seem to apply when it comes to autonomous vehicles. That is why you can now get on a very well regulated, tested and independently verified automated people mover at Phoenix Airport safely and on the other hand could get run over by a ‘registered’ autonomous vehicle as soon as you hit the city streets. Ironic? No, or maybe just a little…
Each incident (another AV running a red light), accident (another AV crashing into the back of a stopped fire truck) and injury or casualty (a lady crossing a street at night) leads to cities and authorities – thankfully – starting to impose strict regulations before autonomous vehicles are allowed on public roads. And that is a really good thing for the development of autonomous vehicles and the industry. Whereas most innovations have a lot of leeway when first introduced, maturity only comes once regulations are established.
Convincing Decision Makers
The key reason for a demonstration is to convince decision makers to “take the next step”. Show the technology is ready for daily operations, carrying members of the public safely and efficiently.
Right then. There is nothing more convincing than a temporary “autonomous” demonstration with a safety steward on board, travelling at a maximum “safe” speed of 15kmh… this creates completely the wrong impression of what is on offer. People will think this technology is not nearly ready for deployment yet as it can’t operate really autonomously yet, delaying decision making processes and pushing back the growth of the entire market. Setting up a convincing argument, which will impress decision makers to make the expenditure required for an autonomous system, is not something that should be taken lightly. It can only be achieved if prepared meticulously, and is not yet another demonstration, but a proof of concept that operates in the real world – which is likely to require a larger investment upfront.
A POC should be embedded in the project and trigger the next phase: the delivery of the permanent project. By awarding a project contingent on successful completion of a POC a classical ‘win-win-win situation’ (cross one off for ‘buzzword-bingo’ ) is created: for the autonomous shuttle vendor, the city and the passengers. As a vendor the POC is important in triggering the delivery of the project and it avoids valuable resources being wasted on just a demonstration – or worse, the experience during the demonstration being used for another tender for a permanent system afterwards. For a city the POC ensures the technical risk is taken out of the equation while moving towards a permanent application fulfilling a daily transportation need. The investment in the proof of concept is not wasted, but a building block of the permanent application. For passengers the POC ensures that the safety has well been shown, and approved, before getting on-board.
So, for what purpose does a demonstration make sense? Marketing. Not just by vendors, also by cities. And operating companies. Suppliers. National governments, approval bodies, regions, agents, insurance companies, shareholders and investors. And yes, the baker and the grocer around the corner: everybody is involved. Not to mention your mum. The exposure a demonstration is able to generate validates the budget being made available. The coverage in the news, on the web and through social media, ultimately should lead to attracting new business. Or better yet, new capital through investors.
With the increasing number of demonstrations, the law of diminishing returns had already set in. The latest demonstrations are getting less attention, moving from national news to regional or local news only, soon to only be a byline in the local neighborhood newsletter (right next to the ads by the local bakery and grocer). As a result, the marketing and communication claims are taken to the next level to retain the attention value. Fortunately, each new exaggerated claim leads us one step closer to the end of the hype and to stricter regulations. Which in itself is a huge step towards permanent applications. At 2getthere we are no fan of exaggeration, but I have to admit that in the end it will help to reset the market! Please keep at it as the damage it is doing now, may just lead to some good in the near future.
2getthere is quickly becoming the rebound company of the industry. We are seen as less sexy (we don’t understand it either?), dependable marriage-material that you would be happy to introduce to your mother to but not go out for a crazy night on the town. On various occasions, we have now been approached or come into contact with cities and companies that have experienced a disappointing demonstration. The demonstration didn’t move the project forward, but stopped the effort. The contact with 2getthere restores – to the level possible – the faith in autonomous shuttles still being possible today, with the right approach to the project. And to let you in on a little secret: it’s not a demonstration.
Consider addressing your current transit needs using autonomous vehicle systems by firstly hiring a good consultant – they really are worth their money – as they will help to guide you through the process of defining the application, determine whether there is a viable business case and the evaluation of the different systems. The city of Capelle aan den IJssel and operating company De Lijn did just this. That’s why they have signed 2getthere to contracts for the delivery of autonomous shuttles, on public roads, without safety stewards, travelling up to 40kph. Obviously, we did have the advantage of a track record of 20+ years of experience on dedicated lanes, which certainly has helped.
So, does this mean 2getthere will skip demonstrations altogether? No, don’t be surprised to see a demonstration by 2getthere, despite all of what has been said above. If it makes sense from a marketing perspective for us to provide a demonstration as part of an existing relationship with a customer or partner, we will deliver. We’ll just make sure to shy away from the over inflated claims.