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Robo-Cars Are Coming, But Probably Not Like You’d Expect

Autonomous vehicle technology is moving into areas like shared taxis, goods delivery and shuttle operations. Unlike some predictions about an AV in every garage, experts say the near-term looks quite different.

A healthcare worker at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., unloads COVID-19 tests from an autonomous shuttle.
Courtsey Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, Fla.
Autonomous vehicle technology companies like Mobileye are aiming to launch “robo-taxis” in the coming years, while similar companies are exploring goods movement and other uses for vehicles without onboard operators.

“Currently, we are looking at multiple cities around the world where we are going to start operating a production service of robo-taxis in 2022,” said Nir Erez, founder and CEO of Moovit, an Israeli mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) provider and trip-planning app.

Intel Corporation, which includes Mobileye as a subsidiary, recently acquired Moovit for $900 million. The venture places the MaaS expertise of Moovit firmly within the autonomous leader Mobileye.

“It is going to be a gradual process of a few dozen, or maybe a few hundred of vehicles roaming in a gradual way,” said Erez, speaking last Wednesday with CoMotion CEO John Rossant during the CoMotion Miami conference.

Erez described the impending evolution of robo-taxis as gradual, starting with “a relatively small footprint" and developing and evolving in clearly defined corridors.

“As we move forward we’re going to see more of these services starting to be deployed in suburbs where people just own a car to drive it to the train station, which is a waste of parking space and a waste of resources,” said Erez.

Shared autonomous taxis are not the only use cases getting attention. Goods movement, with the help of remote-operated sidewalk drones or even the small electric shuttles crawling across office parks and campuses, have potential for AV applications, experts say.

“People are looking at use cases that they had never considered before,” said Alvaro Ramis, vice president for business development at AV company Bestmile.

Ramis noted, in his comments during an AV panel discussion at the CoMotion virtual conference, that the COVID-19 pandemic has not depressed interest in autonomous technology, and could, instead, have accelerated it.

Today’s interest in AV technology seems to be strongest in areas like logistics, seaports, airports and similar use cases, Ramis said, explaining that full autonomy is far from ready for many applications.

“They realize that the world we’re going to come back to is not the same one,” said Ramis.

Already, AVs have been put to work ferrying COVID-19 tests and medical supplies from a drive-through testing center at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

“Satisfying logistics kinds of demands is probably one of the first sort of use cases,” Karina Ricks, director of the department of mobility and infrastructure in Pittsburgh, said of AVs, “so taking your baggage from the plane to the terminal, moving medicine from one point on a closed campus to another point on a closed campus.”

Putting AVs to work in these sorts of use cases begins to put the technology in front of residents in ways to make it familiar, and opens the door toward wider applicability, said Ricks.

AVs used to transport people will likely remain in the public transit-adjacent sector — say, shared robo-taxis — rather than being taken up in the personal vehicle market, said Erez.

The vehicles, in order to make financial and environmental sense, need to be utilized generally in a shared capacity and as a first-mile-last-mile solution as part of the transportation ecosystem, working in concert with public transit, officials from both the public and private sectors argue.

“We definitely need to think about ‘high utilization’ and how do we bring more than two, or three, or four people in the same vehicle to reduce congestion. Otherwise, we’ll see the same situation we see today, where the private vehicles are driving bumper-to-bumper,” said Erez. “The infrastructure is not going to grow dramatically… We need to better utilize the existing infrastructure.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.