Self-driving cars are increasingly attracting attention, both from consumers and investors. But there are a few nuances that are overlooked. Companies that until recently had nothing to do with the taxi sector are now investing heavily in autonomous driving, with a completely different business model in mind. They see a future for robot taxis as a supplement to public transport and classic taxis, not as a replacement.
There are high expectations. Self-driving cars could become the norm by 2025. They are already fully present in Beijing and have traveled millions of kilometers. Baudi, AutoX and Pony.ai are some of the big players in China that are a step ahead of their American competitors such as Waymo and Cruise. This is due to the size of their fleet and their years of experience.
But the transition is not without bumps. For example, self-driving cars suffer from rather 'annoying' driving behavior that can lead to stomach upset among occupants. They have to constantly adapt to avoid accidents, especially when the road is shared with traditional cars. And let's not forget the unpredictability of cyclists and pedestrians, especially in countries like the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, self-driving cars may provide a solution to 'transport poverty' in rural areas where traditional bus lines are being abolished. Collaboration with companies such as Uber can accelerate the adoption of this technology and provide solutions to existing transportation problems.
Transport poverty is a situation in which people have limited access to reliable and affordable means of transport. This can lead to social isolation, reduced access to education and care, and limited opportunities on the labor market. This is a growing problem in rural areas: bus routes are being canceled and other public transport options are scarce.
Classic solutions fall short. The traditional approach to combating transport poverty – for example through subsidies for public transport – is often inadequate for rural areas. The logistical challenges of long distances and low passenger numbers make it difficult to offer cost-efficient services.
Self-driving cars also have the potential to be cheaper than manned vehicles, especially if they are electric. There are no labor costs, and the vehicle can be used more efficiently, 24/7. This can be a more sustainable and economically viable solution to rural challenges. For companies like Uber, autonomous vehicles could be a solution in the fight against unions and the associated labor costs.
Without employees, the company doesn't have to take into account things like union requirements, sick leave, or pension plans. This could significantly reduce operating costs, although it remains to be seen what public opinion will be on this. Collaboration between companies like Uber and local governments can lead to a win-win situation. Local governments can provide subsidies for these services as a form of public transportation, while companies like Uber can tap into a new market.
The idea seems nice, but we are far from there yet. Mercedes is the first and only brand to experiment with autonomous driving on German roads, but under strict conditions and with a speed limit. Regulation will play a big role in how quickly this technology becomes mainstream. The safety of occupants and other road users must be guaranteed, and this requires thorough testing and legislation. Self-driving taxis offer passengers the opportunity to spend their driving time in a different way: they can serve as a mobile office or lounge. This changes the entire experience of a ride and can change society's perception of 'lost time' while traveling.
In the Netherlands we are still far away from autonomous driving. After all, the software must also be able to deal with the 'anarchism' of cyclists, especially in countries such as the Netherlands where cycling is a common means of transport. Imagine for a moment that we would do the same tests here in a country where the sacred cow has long been replaced by the careless cyclist with his earphones in and his cell phone in his hand who moves on the road without any attention to other road users. Some cyclists pay even less attention to the rules than others.
Finally, despite all investments and technological developments, consumer acceptance is crucial. Transportation platforms like Uber are already in the game, but the ultimate choice will be up to the user. The future of self-driving cars and taxis is a complex landscape of technological, financial and social issues. There is a lot of potential, but there are also a lot of bumps in the road.
Although self-driving cars can offer many advantages, there are also ethical questions surrounding privacy and data storage, for example. Furthermore, we must ensure that this technology is accessible and affordable for everyone, to prevent further social inequality.