By Anne Mellano, Co-Founder & VP Operations, Bestmile
In the rush to develop autonomous vehicles and the safer, greener, traffic-free future that they promise, human-driven services like ridehailing and micro-transit that were the rage a few years ago have lost some media luster. Innovation in human-driven services is still happening, however, as competitors to pioneers Uber and Lyft find niche opportunities, and there appears to be plenty of room for growth. This means human-driven and autonomous services will likely need to coexist for some time.
Ridehailing Innovation Continues
New ridehailing services continue to emerge. Newcomer Alto is launching a service next month that offers “transportation as hospitality,” with its own vehicles, professional drivers, and bespoke services like passenger-controlled music, scents, and “vibe.” Startup Safr has introduced a service for women, with all-women drivers that are trained and vetted. Is there really room for growth? “With all the press the big guys get, it’s easy to forget they’ve captured, at most, about 2 percent of vehicle miles traveled in the US,” said Theo Calvin of frog, developer of Alto’s mobile app.
Sharing the Roads
Still, there is a looming question about how new and traditional ridehailing services can live together with autonomous vehicles when driverless services are deployed. “Autonomous vehicles and human-driven vehicles will both be on the road,” Lawrence D. Burns, author of “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How It Will Reshape Our World,” told the Daily Beast. Burns thinks widespread autonomy is five years away.
Lessons from New York
Simply replacing private cars with driverless ones will do little to reduce congestion, for example. The unintended impact of ridehailing on traffic should provide a worthwhile lesson.
New York is among several cities that has stopped issuing new ridehailing licenses because traffic has dramatically worsened. One study found that a 15 percent increase in ride-hailing trips since 2013 has resulted in 59 percent more vehicles in the big apple, a third of which are empty. Average traffic speed is down 23 percent. Too many vehicles are already angling for the same riders. If AV makers flood cities with driverless vehicles, the problem could worsen.
Peer-to-peer ridehailing providers have little incentive to manage supply and demand to reduce the number of vehicles on the streets because they don’t own the vehicles or pay the drivers for idle time. Services that use professional drivers and own the vehicles they use (autonomous or driven), though, will be motivated to optimize utilization as vehicles without passengers lose money. But if these service providers send all of their drivers and vehicles to the same places, you’ll still have a supply-demand imbalance and the same old congestion.
Air Traffic Control for City Streets
What is emerging is a need for some broader control of how and where new mobility services are deployed and managed in cities. There will be a need for a system akin to air traffic control at airports, where a centralized system guides the right vehicles (airplanes) from multiple manufacturers and service providers gate-to-gate to ensure safe, efficient operation. For new automotive services to operate with the efficiency and affordability that are hoped-for, they will have to be able to match capacity with demand in real time and reduce the overall number of vehicles on city streets.
Mobility service providers—whether from the tech world or the auto world–are developing their self-driving and ridehailing services independently, each with its own navigation, booking, and ride matching technology. The control tower will need to be able to work with vehicles of any brand, with open source technology and APIs that allow services to connect and communicate.
Who will operate the control tower? Some say cities will need to step in and take back their streets from the businesses that have relatively quickly morphed into giants with some giant problems. Cities are also responsible for much of the infrastructure that these services need in the form of roads, signals, parking structures, and utilities; and public transit has the mandate to serve low-income, unbanked, elderly, disabled, and other members of the community that need to get to schools, doctors, and jobs.
Service management can also be performed by the service providers themselves with vehicle -agnostic mobility services platforms capable of communication with both autonomous and human-driven vehicles. Bestmile, for example, provides the mobility services optimization software that will be used by Alto to maximize vehicle efficiency and utilization.
The near future will be hybrid. The pace of adoption of new services may be determined not so much by how well each new mobility service works, but by how well they all can work together. Air traffic control for cites may be the solution that can help new mobility services deliver on the promise to improve urban quality of life.