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Autonomous shuttles competition: the good, the bad and the ugly

Autonomous-shuttles-competition-the-good-the-bad-and-the-uglyBlog by Robbert Lohmann, Chief Commercial Officer

OK, short summary: 2getthere is good, the competition is bad and their vehicles are ugly! No arguments – that’s what I thought – so case closed. End of blog 😊 (just kidding)

Autonomous shuttles competition: the good, the bad and the ugly

In the 1966 classic ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ it is all about three different bounty hunters working together to get to the gold despite hating each other. In reality we never hate the competition; hate is such a strong word that we hate to use it. Puzzled about approaches, sometimes jealous of marketing budgets and flabbergasted (always wanted to use that word in a sentence!) about another exaggerated claim are more appropriate than hate. Before I get carried away, again, I do want to argue that we should be following the movie in working together to develop the market. We can all be content with a piece of the pie if the darn thing is big enough! Ultimately nobody wants to become obese: it is not sustainable in the long run.

So, please consider this a CALL TO ACTION to our competitors (Easymile, Navya, May Mobility, Local Motors, Optimus Ride, ST, E.Go Moov, Lohr, Westfield and everybody-I-am-forgetting-to-mention): let’s work together to speed up the maturation of the market and increase its size!

Indirectly, as a direct consequence, this is also a CALL TO ACTION to cities: set a higher bar and focus on daily transit issues to be addressed instead of ‘only’ asking for demonstrations, pilots and tests!

Sizing up the competition

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: we don’t compete with buses, walking or biking!

Contrary to popular belief, buses are our friends. We provide first and last mile connections to (their) stations attracting more passengers to public transit. At the expense of people using cars – not at the expense of walking a biking, which are great and healthy ways to transverse a city. In addition they allow for a great density without any pollution. The moment new transit services reduce people walking, biking or using public transit, you know you screwed up. Big time. Kinda like twelve publishing houses turning down JK Rowling. Ford building the Edsel. And Yahoo not buying Google for merely 1 million USD. Times 100, combined. That feels like a lot, but should be considered an understatement.

The real competition is personal use of cars. Even electric cars. And ride hailing services Basically anything when NOT shared. We have said it before and we’ll say it again: to keep the city of the future accessible, liveable and sustainable, we need (significantly) less vehicles in the city. Uber and Lyft are not going to save the world, they are going to destroy cities as we know them before they are going to make money (duh?!). Which is what they know or otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to start selling train and bus tickets. We need to give space occupied by moving and parked vehicles back to the citizens living and working along those streets.

Public transit is the key to achieving this.

Did I just lose you? If I have, you aren’t reading this anymore… Oh well, if I haven’t lost you (just) yet, bear with me. Yes, public transit. For those now arguing that it can never get you to your destination like a car can, it is time to wake up. The car rarely brings you to front door. Urbanization and densification will ensure that this is the case even more often. Pretty soon travelling by car is also a multi modal journey.

The best and most efficient cities in the world feature extensive and efficient transit networks. Ensuring that these are better connected, whether through Mobility as a Service, or through supplementing the networks with demand driven autonomous vehicles for the first and last mile, will make the journey more efficient ensuring it can compete with the personal use of the car.

The Good

A wise person once said that competition is good as it makes companies better. And it certainly ensures the market matures faster. So what are the key drivers? (pun intended).

Our work became a lot easier when new companies joined the market. Easier? Yes, others started helping us. Unintendedly, but probably knowingly: instead of us trying to raise awareness for our type of system, all of a sudden other companies were marketing/pushing the concept as well. The attention for driverless cars increased between 2012 and 2015 with the attention for the efforts by Google and the introduction of J3016 “Levels of Driving Automation” in 2016. All of a sudden we went from ‘a weird APM-system’ to ‘the only operational autonomous L4 vehicles’. Talk about night and day. Overnight there was an enormous increase of reference visits to the Rivium application with the realization that this is still the only autonomous vehicle application without safety drivers.

When in a market by yourself the first applications requires an intensive effort, but the second might be even tougher. Note: we are talking about permanent installations with multiple vehicles, not temporary demonstrations with a limited amount of vehicles. With competition in place, and alternatives present, a market is driven to maturity faster both on the supply and demand side. On the supply side companies are trying to maintain their competitive advantage, continuously improving their offering, product and services. On the demand side customers are uniting to exchange experiences to improve what they are demanding, moving towards standardization and interoperability.

With competition there is also a need to create/maintain a competitive advantage. For 2getthere as first mover and technology leader, this means continuous innovation and further improvement of the system performance. In the end, our business is not delivering autonomous shuttles, but enabling operators to carry passengers from A to B on a daily basis without disruptions. This also requires companies to become mature more rapidly, thus further strengthening the market moving forward.

Ultimately, competition ensures customers have a choice: it somehow isn’t appealing when there are no alternatives. A monopoly slows decision making or even grinds it to a halt – with the customer looking for (non-automated) alternatives. Being the first company active in this market we have seen this happen time and time again. We have had verbal commitments on projects, with the decision being reversed during final negotiations because the customer didn’t have a choice. Note, that we are currently in the same situation still for a particular project: no competitor can match our performance and hence the customer can’t validate his decision. Can you blame a customer? No. The only way to resolve it is by having better competition and ensure the customer has a choice. The market needs to mature.

The Bad

For a market to mature, building trust is paramount. An immature approach and overselling can result in a loss of trust that not only impacts one company, but the whole market. In the last 12 months the first driverless shuttle has been announced at least a dozen times (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12). With all these vehicles featuring a steward on board. FAKE NEWS ALERT! Fact check: 2getthere was (and will always remain) the first to introduce autonomous vehicles in 1997. 😊

By now, such announcements don’t really rattle my chain anymore. You get numb over time. There are still a couple of things that still surprise me.

Let’s start with the market approach: it drives me nuts every time a customer is convinced to go for a demonstration rather than a permanent application. Come on! Really?! We need to make the next steps, not continue to repeat the steps of the late 90s!! Let’s re-learn what others have learned already. That makes sense. Not. Until recently, demonstrations were a business model by themselves. Now the discontinuation of a demonstration as the performance was not up to standard should be a signal to all that demonstrations makes no sense. This is a call to action to all decision makers worldwide: demand more! Raise the bar and set higher expectations: when moving forward, pick a real case and define a proof-of-concept. And to all competitors: help the market and our customers. Demand more. Demand real applications, not demonstrations.

We should also stop with generalizations. Each company should be responsible for its own failures. Heck, we have learned from our mistakes and closely monitor the competition to learn from theirs! When trying to explain your failure through a generalization, you are denying an opportunity to learn and slow the market from maturing. The statement ‘the market is in an experimentation phase’, while focusing on delivering demonstrations (see major irritation 1.) is not fair. If anything the Rivium application demonstrates that we are way past experimentation. If we want to build trust, and as a result really allow the market to grow, let’s start with learning from both our own and our competitors failures. And allow all customers to learn from it. It will help the market mature and grow.

The call to action: if you are in this market, join us in addressing the bad and work with us to mature the market.

The Ugly

I started the blog by calling the competition’s vehicles ugly. That’s not fair. Perhaps it is more accurately phrased by The Verge: they are odd-looking. Are looks important? Heck yes, they are what you are attracted to on first sight! Ultimately you fall in love with the performance and experience. Just like you did with your partner (hopefully). All joking aside, we do believe that our vehicle is the prettiest available. It surely isn’t boxy or a retrofitted glorified golf cart. We made sure sensory systems are properly integrated avoiding them being mounted like a bad case of acne. Skip ahead if you want, I am not even going to apologize about it, as it would be insincere anyways. Our vehicles are in a separate class: they are sexy, with best of class performance and specifications while providing an unrivaled passenger experience.

The ugly part of competition is not about vehicle looks. It is about when competitors resort to ‘trash-talking’ instead of competing respectfully. In 2getthere’s case this means the competition always tries to pin us as non-autonomous, focusing on the artificial landmarks used instead of navigation based on seeing the surroundings. Obviously leaving out that we also supply other means of localization and that they are using artificial landmarks of their own (GPS). Which, by the way, like the natural landmarks, requires line of sight and hence doesn’t work in all-weather circumstances. It sometimes works though, with customers getting hung-up on technology instead of performance, requiring an additional effort from our side to set the record straight.

And I must admit, sometimes it is easy to get caught up in a moment. I tend to have a strong opinion and combine this with a typical Dutch directness. Is it blunt? I can imagine it is to some. Is it trash-talking? I hope not, but have understood it has come across that way. I have apologized. And moved on. I am trying to avoid getting caught up in the moment again. We want 2getthere and 2getthere employees to be seen as respectful of the competition. We don’t hate them, we don’t disrespect them either – we are just convinced our autonomous systems are better and have the arguments to prove it: performance, experience, cost of ownership, service level, capacity, commercial speed, etc.

Even when working together, we can still compete by using strengths and weaknesses to create positioning.

Give me a call

So yeah, we can compete. And work together. Also with our customers. All to speed up the maturation of the market and increase the market size. Let’s move away from generalizations and other actions that don’t do any of us any favors. We did this before through the Advanced Transit Association, which would not be a bad ‘vehicle’ (get the wordplay?) to be used again. Have a look and let me know.

Remember how ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ movie ended? For your recollection: the Bad, unwilling to work together respectfully, didn’t make it to the end – the Good and the Ugly ultimately share the pie…

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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.

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The (non)sense of autonomous shuttle demonstrations

BlogRobbert 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.

Passenger Acceptance

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.

Technology verification

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.

Propoganda

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.

Rebound Girl

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.

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