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Mobility-as-a-service: how driverless cars are going to redefine travel

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/LifetimeStock)

It used to be that ownership was the epitome of success. Considered an asset rather than a liability, ownership of items like cars and houses was put on a pedestal by our society. But in today’s economic climate with home ownership out of reach for many and cars seen by some as an unnecessary ever-depreciating asset, we are at the start of a momentous shift in the way we live and travel.

Renting and sharing services have exploded in recent years, with the likes of Uber and Airbnb capitalising on these changing consumer views and habits. Changing renting/owning models for smartphones, bikes, even clothes, are an indication of the shifting landscape. Renting can be more practical or affordable than ownership, and is an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of ownership without some of the costs.

This is the sharing economy, and it already applies to vehicles – car clubs like DriveNow are expanding in cities across the UK. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will further accelerate this paradigm shift. When you can summon a driverless Uber-like car service at the touch of a button, and the cost per journey is lower than that of a car ownership model, how long will it be before ‘mobility-as-a-service’ is the default transportation model?

Why autonomy will accelerate change

We know that autonomous vehicles will introduce myriad societal benefits such as recovering commuting time and lowering cost, reducing accident rates, cutting congestion and minimising emissions. However, this new approach to mobility will also have a profound impact on personal vehicle ownership rates, and it will change the automotive industry beyond recognition in the process.   

AVs will enable new service configurations where users are shuttled door-to-door directly, in a comfortable vehicle that is paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. Because there is no human driver and the fixed costs of ownership are amortised over a high utilisation rate, the cost per mile is reduced. Travellers can use their travel time as they please and there’s no need to spend time searching for a parking space. Users won’t need to own a car which sits at home, unused 95 per cent of the time, constantly depreciating in value and requiring regular cleaning, upkeep and maintenance.  

Mobility-as-a-service will be frictionless: easily accessible via a smartphone app, with big data analytics used to optimise routes for reduced wait times. Such services are likely to be integrated with the user’s digital calendar for added convenience. From an economic standpoint, users will be driven at a cost that is equivalent to that of a bus ride, without government subsidy.

This paradigm shift in mobility will bring about similarly seismic change in the auto industry, with reduction in personal car ownership leading to reduced volume sales; an effect likely to be first visible in developed markets. Another change may be that cars become more commoditised: in the same way that most users won’t care what brand of vehicle arrives when they order an Uber, mobility-as-a-service may favour non-prestige brands from China and the far east such as SAIC, BYD, Geely or Dongfeng. In time, cars will cease to look like the vehicles we know today and will look more like pods, with the removal of internal vehicle controls and the need for human input into the driving task allowing for more innovative vehicle design and interior layouts.

Mobility On-Demand 

With these increased possibilities for vehicle design and a reduction in ownership, mobility-as-a-service will also enable the choice of a wider range of vehicle configurations to suit the different types of travel we might undertake.

For example, there will be shared transport for peak-time commuter travel, built to maximise human capacity, which might resemble small buses with a practical, utilitarian design. There are also likely to be more comfortable family vehicles for weekend outings or longer trips, sleeper cars for overnight journeys and lots of other configurations in-between – all available on-demand.

The science behind the vision

Mobility-as-a-service and the associated benefits paint an exciting vision of the future of transport, but the industry still has some way to go from a technology perspective before we get to this point. Computer-vision science has largely solved the problem of perception, delivering a better-than-human ability to recognise objects. This is a vital part of the picture in ensuring AV safety, but this advance alone isn’t sufficient.

Autonomous vehicles and human-controlled cars will occupy the same roads as the technology is introduced, so to gain public acceptance AVs will have to drive in a way that other (human) road users can anticipate and safely respond to. At the same time AVs will have to make timely progress in busy traffic, i.e. driving assertively where necessary. This is a careful balancing act, and means that AVs must have the ability to anticipate what is likely to happen next in a scene. This remains an unsolved challenge, as observed by the higher than average rear-end collisions that some autonomous vehicles experience in testing on the open road. In addition, system validation and safety standards need to be addressed by the industry, and at a political level so do current EU limitations on the 10mph speed allowed for automatically steered vehicles.

These are not easy challenges to solve, but the prize for success is huge in societal terms: recovering commuting time for users, reducing commuting costs, cutting accident rates, reducing congestion and lowering vehicle emissions. When AVs can safely deliver end-to-end journeys anywhere, with zero occupancy where necessary, there will be a dramatic shift from car-ownership to consumption of mobility-as-a-service and all of the advantages this approach entails.

At FiveAI, we believe the safest approach is to avoid sharing any element of the driving task with humans: our system will be capable of handling any situation that it comes across without any human intervention. This is known as Level 5 autonomy, and although it’s a more difficult technical challenge than lower levels, we believe it’s the only truly safe option.

We are heading towards a future where instead of consumers owning their own vehicles which mostly sit unused, many people will turn to consume mobility-as-a-service: using vehicles which are owned by transport operators, and are summoned by users for particular journeys “on-demand”. These vehicles will be in use for 80 per cent+ of the day and because this model maximises seat miles and is therefore much more efficient, it will be significantly cheaper for consumers than the total cost of owning and operating a personal, privately-owned vehicle.

Autonomous vehicles will dramatically change the economics of personal mobility – revolutionising how people get around and the way they own and use vehicles. This in turn will change the automotive industry, public transport and even entire societies. No one knows exactly what will happen, or precisely when – but change for the better is coming.

Stan Boland, CEO, FiveAI
Image source: Shutterstock/LifetimeStock

Stan Boland
Stan Boland co-founded and was CEO of two VC-backed communications silicon and software companies: Element 14 and Icera. He is a graduate in Physics from the University of Cambridge.