Autonomous vehicles took the top spot in Lux's top emerging technologies to watch in 2021, and the self-driving technology has continued to make headlines, with major players announcing robotaxi key pilots this year and others targeting commercial-ready deployment by 2022. Technology development has seen a surprising acceleration in light of COVID-19, and recent funding announcements suggest that trend is not yet slowing.
Although the promise of Level 4 (L4) personal autonomous vehicles remains in the pilot stage for now, Lux previously outlined that ride-hailing represents one of the five key commercial applications for autonomous vehicles. By removing the driver from the vehicle, ride-hailing or robotaxi companies stand to recover roughly 80% of the fare that passengers pay. However, effective robotaxi operations will require much more than simply deploying autonomous vehicles on public roads. We decided it would be helpful to briefly outline the essential components that will make up robotaxi operations.
Of course, the vehicles themselves represent the first major requirement for hopeful operators. Included in this consideration are the integrated systems of environmental perception sensors, processing hardware, the software stack, high-definition maps of intended operating areas, and connectivity infrastructure required to simply field a safe, operational vehicle.
Cabin Monitoring System
In-cabin monitoring systems already exist in L2 systems and will likely be required in future L4 autonomous vehicles. While most technology suppliers are working closely with OEMs to develop custom hardware and software modules for production models, robotaxi operators will likely look to employ their own aftermarket solutions tailored to monitor shared mobility interiors. Without the presence of a physical driver, operators will lean on cabin monitoring systems to serve the role of enforcing rules – typically a role of the driver – including ensuring that people do not smoke or engage in physical altercations.
While autonomous vehicle companies utilize backup safety drivers physically present in vehicles to ensure safety during pilots, a component of the transition to fully driverless fleets is a company's ability to remotely operate the vehicle if needed. Remember, L4 systems can autonomously operate without human intervention in specific conditions but require human intervention outside of those conditions or when vehicles encounter situations they cannot navigate. Teleoperation still makes it possible for fleet owners to remove drivers and associated costs, although in the early years, those costs will just be transferred to those overseeing teleoperations. It should be noted that some companies, such as AutoX, are pursuing robotaxi operation free of teleoperators.
Fleet Management Software
Like most fleets, robotaxi operations will require fleet management systems to monitor and manage multiple aspects of their vehicles, including but not limited to vehicle inventory and acquisition, fuel management, and vehicle health and maintenance history. While this space is quite mature, with many existing players, fleet management for robotaxi operations will likely require unique capabilities. For example, this system will likely need to work in concert with the cabin monitoring system to determine whether vehicles should be dispatched to the hub for cleaning based on the cleanliness of vehicle interiors.
Digital ride-hailing platforms will act as reservation and dispatching software for robotaxi operations. There are still only a handful of ride-hailing giants out there, with players like Lyft and Uber trying to gain a foothold in the self-driving space through partnerships. Conversely, autonomous vehicle players like Waymo and WeRide.ai are targeting full disruption with their own vehicles and platforms. However, operators will need to offer additional mobility services on top of ride-hailing in order to holistically compete in the shared mobility space.
Vehicle Storage Hubs
Storage depots will be essential investments that will not only house the vehicles during downtime but also have the requisite fueling, charging, and maintenance infrastructure. Notably, these hubs are not unique to robotaxi operations and already exist in cities for buses and taxi fleets.
Contracts and Licenses
Robotaxi operators will require a multitude of contracts and licenses in order to safely and legally operate, a few of which include cellular connectivity contracts, operating licenses, and insurance policies. While the costs of these services are unknown, there is potential for them to be quite large. Insurance will likely be costly, considering how expensive robotaxi assets will be, and the amount of data being transmitted to and from the vehicles will equate to higher costs as well.
There will likely be many additional supplementary components that ultimately make up effective robotaxi operations. Factors like dedicated lanes or pickup and drop-off spots, enabling V2X infrastructure, and municipal data sharing agreements are all likely to play a role, although those expanded upon in this piece are bare minimum requirements and can serve as guiding components of robotaxi cost models. Still, it is important to understand that a robotaxi is not simply replacing a human driver with an autonomous vehicle.
There are many supporting systems that go into robotaxi operations, and it is not yet clear that there is a strong business case for them. In reality, there are a lot of costs associated with robotaxi operations, which will be the topic of a Lux report in 2021. For now, clients curious about potential business opportunities in the space should assess these basic elements and consider avenues of involvement.