Ride the Robo-Cab


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Emanuele.

Numerous veteran cabbies have developed discerning a wisdom when they come across drunk people trying to hail their taxi. If potential passengers stumble and sways in their gait, taxi drivers might not even bother picking them up to avoid the chance of a back seat puking fiasco.

The bottom line is, however, consumers who need a vital service aren’t being accommodated. Taxi drivers apply their judgment and practice their ability to choose one passenger over another, which can cause inefficiencies in the service.

Shared cabbie systems like Uber and Lyft have burgeoned in recent years, filling assorted holes in the medallion cab market. However, even those services have their downfalls, such as congesting city streets. Members of these companies are looking to new technology to further improve the taxi service industry.

Uber, for instance, has invested itself in a self-driving car project that could automate their entire line of cabs. Other big corporations like Google and Ford are racing to be the first company to sell affordable self-driving cars that could provide assorted transportation services.

So what would the future look like with robo-taxis and automated cars?

Well, a recent research simulation found that “TaxiBots” in combination with public transportation, will use 65 percent fewer cars than what’s used today at peak hours. The report also calculated that the technology’s presence would free up to 80 percent of lots used as parking space.

The results were found using a new model conducted by a team of French transportation scientists at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The information was based on an actual test of “TaxiBots” in Lisbon, Portugal. The researchers examined how the self-driving machines would transform the city.

Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.

A fundamental transformation occurs due to the unique combination of ride-sharing and package delivery services that the machines could provide.

John Eddy, a principal and leader of the infrastructure practice at the consulting firm, Arup, shared his thoughts with BTR on the risks and benefits of automated vehicles.

“The biggest game-changer for automated vehicles [is how] the ownership structures and robo-taxis play right into that,” explains Eddy. “You can imagine if you owned a driver-less vehicle and had the ability to lend it out and give it to friends… it would turn out that borrowing or renting cars would be much cheaper.”

The cabbie-free cab platform may be slowly creeping into our existing taxi system with the help of companies like Uber and Lyft. The data they collect of where and when people need cabs helps bring better accuracy to understanding consumers’ needs and could further assist in the sharing of self-governing cabs.

“All these Lyfts and Ubers are demonstrations for what the robo-taxis will be and they are introducing the idea of sharing mobility and the ease of relying on something else for their mobility,” elaborates Eddy.

The onset of robo-cabs could theoretically decrease the amount of cars on the road and therefore reduce the amount of traffic.

In fact, the simulation report stated, “Nearly the same mobility can be delivered with 10 percent of the cars TaxiBots combined with high-capacity public transport could remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a mid-sized European city.”

Eddy’s firm, Arup, employs and consults assorted designers, planners, engineers, and technical specialists. These professionals probe the biggest questions of automated vehicle logistics in terms of infrastructure.

In March 2014, Eddy participated in the company’s conference entitled, “Designing a Driverless World,” where 60 professionals in technology, design, and even real estate discussed the pros and cons of automated machines.

Though one robotic vehicle could potentially replace many other cars, that might not necessarily mean less traffic.

Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.

“The human element always creates inefficiencies which could be solved with driverless vehicles, the question is, how much busier will those streets be if these vehicles are always out and about?” poses Eddy.

Issues of liability commonly come into question when more than one person claims ownership of a vehicle. The complex liability issue has played into Uber’s sexual harassment cases and would likely be problematic for future robo-ubers too.

“The personal ownership issue is a little tricky because there is a liability associated with this,” reasons Eddy. “Partial owners could adjudicate the liability so the person in the car is not liable.”

Financial savings and environmental benefits seem to be the most influential elements as to whether the technology will become fully integrated into society.

Parking spaces are known to increase the cost of construction and development. Consumers usually get the greatest burden to their presence, as the cost to develop parking spaces only results in increased prices for retail goods and rent.

If fewer cars are on the road, that will also be a direct link to reduced carbon emissions, something companies like Google are already citing when they pitch their ideas to policy makers.

“It’s great that they [Google] are studying the benefits because it’s going to be that whole package that influences policy makers and businesses,” proposes Eddy.

It is difficult to predict when your next bar hopping outing could involve a robo-car safely navigating you home–but whenever the technology does hit the streets, it will surely revolutionize how we get from point A to B.