Two self-driving shuttle companies die in a week, but there's good news


Last week saw Optimus Ride get sold for acqui-hire, and Local Motors shutting its doors. There are reasons why self-driving shuttles aren't that interesting right now, but that's going to change, and small van-sized vehicles are probably the future of group transportation.

Read why in my Forbes site story at Two self-driving shuttle companies die in a week, but there's good news


While restricted zone shuttles may seem like an easier entry point for companies without Google's resources, something halfway between geo-fenced shuttles and robotaxis might be a way for the bigger players to get actual customers before a full robotaxi service is feasible.
What I mean is that a first mile feeder to larger vehicles would mostly be operating in the suburbs, where traffic density is lower, and intersections simpler.
Two obvious questions would need to be answered to know if this was feasible.
Firstly, does the reduced complexity of suburban streets actually translate into an easier task for self driving engineers to develop?
Secondly does a first mile pickup solve enough of the problem to be useful?
At commuting time the journey is generally between a less dense and a more dense location, so the last mile is more likely to be an actual mile at the suburban end than the city end. This means the suburban last mile may be both easier and more useful to solve.

Yes, if you limit your area, it's easier. Of course, some areas are harder.

The key is that if you want to shuttle people from their homes to a transfer point near a major road, that's a sucky job for human drivers. Uber and Taxis all have minimum fares which make rides of 3/4 mile unaffordable. The reason is drivers don't want to do this. Due to rush hour patterns the rides are often one way, or there are waits or empty runs between customers. This uses up a lot of human time and is expensive.

Robots cost some money to do empty miles, but much less. And they don't "mind" them, being robots. They will happily sit until a customer needs them, or position themselves in advance of need, and sit there waiting for you, with little extra cost.

Even if the main 15 person van that travels the arterial road is human driven, that can still work out because that's a more regular job, though wasteful if you need to do empty return legs. You don't usually have zero reverse commute, but it can be wasteful as you fill the van in the commute direction, and only half-fill it in the reverse direction -- but every commuter transit system has that issue.

‘Ready why’

A load factor of 9 is an amazingly low number. What is the source for this?

Have not checked the recent numbers -- probably worse with Covid -- but the Dept. of Energy's Transportation data fact book has numbers ever year on efficiency per passenger mile (calculated in part using load factors) for all the modes. About 5 years ago they switched how they did electric transport compared to fossil, so you can no longer directly compare them.

Why is 9 "amazingly" low? Seems right to me. You may suffer from a common sampling bias. More people see a full bus than see an empty one, so one's average impression is that buses have more people than that, because few people see the empty buses, other than the driver and the statisticians.

Of course this varies from city to city as well. 9 is the national average. 23 for light rail cars -- after a major increase in the mid-2010s, but they weigh so much (the light refers to capacity not weight) that they are horribly energy inefficient, as bad as putting everybody in their own Hummer on the worst systems. It's an ecological catastrophe some of the light rail that gets put in. Some of it is a bit better, but none of it can beat an electric car.

A bus is about 20,000lbs and a light rail car can be about 70,000lbs, so the bus with 10 is moving 2,000lbs of bus per person, while the light rail with 23 is moving 3,000lbs of rail car per person.

At the DOT site they show the bus load factor as 10 in 2015, so slightly different calculation than DoE. But getting worse. Can't get how you think the reality is "amazingly" low. I mean, what was your estimate of it before you read the stats?

MaaS services outside of US are maturing at a faster rate.

The lack of substantive discussion about the hazards of PuDo (Pickup/Drop-Off) without dedicated zones on city streets still prevails. Is there an inflection point where one of the unspoken deal-breakers of adoption surfaces as a reality check?
PuDo is a deal-breaker no one wants to admit. Can Shuttles and Robotaxis even share the same PuDo?

I have other articles on this but it is a big issue. You have private PuDo which will run by whatever rules the owner wants, though city rules may demand that buildings of a certain size meet certain standards. The good news is that their parking lots, which will get fewer cars, provide available space for this.

Public PuDo will be subject to city policies. Ideally it will be shared as that is most efficient. If I know urban planners, they will try to get exclusive space for their buses and maybe larger shuttles. The best solution would be to share them in the cloud, where the city takes the spaces it manages and hands out reservations to use them, and it can give priority to vehicles with more people.

However, you want to exploit the large supply of small PuDo, namely unused parking spaces, spaces in front of low-use private driveways, spaces in front of hydrants etc. Buses can't use these but there are a lot of them.

Not to mention, programming humans or robots to a driving environment of a dense obstacle course of vehicles darting in, out, or around spaces represents just a minute portion of the ensuing conundrum.

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