Blog by Robbert Lohmann, Chief Commercial Officer

You have to provide value (short travel times) to the passenger. Depending on the value that the passenger experiences, he’s going to be willing to pay for the service that is provided.

The Need for Speed for Autonomous Shuttles

Loved the game ( I was addicted to it and could play for hours, but every now and then my parents actually needed the PC for something. Or I had to let my brother play also ☹ Obviously I always played arcade mode with infinite lives to ensure that my (lack of) driving skills wouldn’t impact my chances of actually completing the race.

Roughly 25 years later (yes, I am that old!) I am advocating taking drivers off vehicles, introducing autonomous shuttles. A psychologist might conclude that this is directly related to all my fender benders and crashes back then. Sure, blame it on the video game…

I can’t help but chuckle about the fact that The Need For Speed is very appropriate for the stage where the market for autonomous shuttles is at. Worldwide companies are ‘supporting’ the hype with shuttles crawling around at a snail’s pace. Other vehicles, carrying freight, aren’t any faster. Often supported with statements about being the first, either in a specific country, city or bigger claims like on a public road. The market seems to be perpetually stuck at 15kph. Which might explain why the term LSAV (low speed autonomous vehicles) is gaining traction. Ironic ain’t it, that apparently the term for the market is currently the only thing picking up speed 😊. Or is it?

Literally the need for speed

Just to get one thing very clear: literally doesn’t mean speeding up the video to make the shuttle appear faster. That’s deceitful when not obvious, but at least plainly admitting the vehicle is too slow. And I learned from my granddad at the ripe old age of 8 or so, that anything with ‘too’ in front is not good.

When you are going somewhere, you want to get there (now that name start to make sense!). Fast. The journey is not the destination. Traveling is a necessary evil to get from A to B. It should not be an event, but forgettable – which is hard to comprehend for companies riding the hype. The greatest compliment we ever had is that somebody apologized to us for thinking she had used our autonomous vehicles, but couldn’t remember for certain. That’s only possible when the journey is in line with the expectation: fast, as in short waiting times and short travel times. Which means the system should feature a high frequency and a good average speed.

The average speed for buses in inner cities has been constant at 18kph for years, although it is under pressure with congestion rising (which is why bus lanes are created). The manually operated bus thus sets the benchmark. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to realize this average speed is not achievable when the maximum speed of the vehicle is 15kph – regardless of the traffic encountered and the number of stops along the way. To achieve an average speed of 18kph, as required for the Brussels Airport Zaventem project, the top speed of the vehicle needs to be considerably higher. At least double. Which is what most autonomous shuttles claim, but almost all have yet demonstrate (including, or especially, the ones with the souped up videos).

Confusingly, an additional reason for the need for speed is safety. Everybody understands that with higher speeds, come higher risks. The speed should not be too fast (see, my granddad was a very wise man), but it should certainly not be too slow either. When introducing autonomous shuttles into mixed traffic, it is essential that their speed is similar to other vehicles on the road. A vehicle moving at 15kph, while all others are driving 30kph to 50kph, is not a good idea. Period. And exclamation mark. (nothing in parentheses). It is the reason why there is a minimum speed requirement for vehicles to be allowed on highways and pedestrians are on the sidewalk. For autonomous vehicles to be able operate on existing roads, the speeds of the different vehicles should be comparable. It is exactly why autonomous driving on highways is the first to come: all vehicles going relatively the same speed, same direction without intersections. 40kph (as shown in the demonstration at ITS Europe in Helmond) is a good starting point, a minimum top speed, for autonomous shuttles now, but eventually the speed should be increased to 50, 60 or perhaps even 80kph.

There is one ultimate reason for the need for speed though. Rod Tidwell said it best: ‘Show. Me. The. Money!’ ( Or, if you want to phrase it in a way that sounds a lot better: value. You have to provide value to the passenger. Depending on the value that the passenger experiences, he’s going to be willing to pay for the service that is provided. Low speeds equal long travel times, low payments (low revenues) as well as more vehicles to meet the required capacity (higher costs). When the service is not attractive ridership is low as well. Conversely, higher speeds add value by shorter travel times, allowing for higher ride fares while lowering the costs and still attracting a higher ridership.

The business case is exactly why it appears the market is perpetually stuck in demonstrations or small, experimental applications with a limited amount of shuttles (1 or perhaps 2 or maybe 3). There is no business case, passengers aren’t required to pay for the ride, there are no other revenues and the number of users is low (5,000 people in a period of 6 months or so). Certainly it is possible to learn, but when/how do we learn to speed up the market development and the deployment of real, permanent applications?

Figuratively the need for speed

Newsflash: the market for autonomous shuttles is not new. It has been around since 1997 with the introduction of the first autonomous vehicles at Schiphol Airport. It certainly seemed to pick up steam (finally!) approximately 5 years ago with demonstrations of autonomous vehicles worldwide becoming more common. We are still in the same stage though and to avoid crashing the market needs to get moving. We need to kick the gears in motion and accelerate the introduction of autonomous vehicles. You gotta love the wordplay here…

The only way to speed up the maturation of the market is by showing the viability of autonomous vehicles as an everyday means of transit. One that has a financially viable business case by attracting passengers that are willing to pay for it. And reduces the costs by avoiding the need for a person on board of the vehicle – whether you call him/her the driver, safety steward, host or caretaker for that matter. It is so logical and simple it is odd it needs to be explained. There are plenty of these cases around, that’s certainly not the problem, so why aren’t these systems already on order?! It is the perceived commercial, technical and legislative risk.

Which is exactly why we are so happy with our new mother. The acquisition by a major automotive player is a very clear vote of confidence and precisely what the market needs. The move helps address the commercial and technical risk at the same time. Customers are taking notice and moving up their time frames for the projects. Where initially demonstrations where considered, cities now start to look at their current transit issues and which could be addressed by autonomous shuttles on a daily basis. With customers wanting to speed up their time frames, it increases the pressure on authorities to implement further and more clear requirements for the approval of operations of autonomous vehicles.

The market maturation is speeding up and the size is increasing. Pretty soon there won’t be a need to eat the whole pie to survive, but it will be possible to be content with a piece of the pie. We are a big eater though, so better get your share while you can.

Disclaimer: 2getthere’s blog is 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. Or sometimes it actually is, but in that case we just say we’re Dutch and couldn’t help ourselves…

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.