Most pundits writing about shared autonomous vehicles almost always write about autonomous ride hailing. “When will self-driving Uber’s arrive?” What is universally overlooked are the autonomous use cases for carsharing. Ironically, autonomous vehicles will likely be pressed into service supporting carsharing fleets long before the widespread adoption of autonomous ridehailing.
Conventional wisdom is that once we have autonomous vehicles, carsharing as we know it will go away. Why would anyone need to drive a shared car when they can get there in a self-driving car? In the long run, it’s true that most carsharing fleets will be upgraded into self-driving ride hailing fleets. But that change won’t happen all at once. There will be an interim period when autonomous vehicles will drive in our cities using permits that allow vehicles to be operated autonomously without a paying passenger inside. It’s this period of time, which could last for years, when autonomous tech will be applied to enhancing fleets of vehicles used for carsharing.
Autonomous vehicles will play a utility role in Carsharing fleets
Carsharing services frequently need vehicles to be moved to more desirable locations, or moved to depots for maintenance, charging and cleaning. Today, all of these operations require sending someone to the car to drive it to another destination. These operations are expensive. Sending drivers can cost the carsharing operator as much as $30 per move.
If these fleets included vehicles equipped with self-driving tech, they would no longer need to send people to move the cars. The vehicles could move themselves to the charging stations, maintenance and cleaning depots or to more desirable parking spots around the city. These operations could take place at low speeds, in controlled circumstances, overnight when traffic is light.
While the cost savings are not insignificant, there is even more strategic value for the carshare operator from the experience gained in operating a fleet of autonomous vehicles as part of their carshare platform. And even more importantly, as they become trusted autonomous vehicle operators, they will develop stronger relationships with the city government.
Autonomous ride hailing permits are the first stop for future growth
Cities control which companies are allowed to operate ride hailing services within city limits. In San Francisco, an existing operator of shared mobility won one of two scooter sharing permits due in part to their prior relationship with the City of San Francisco. Forbes wrote that cities have taken control of who can and can’t operate a sharing business in their cities.
Securing a permit to operate a shared mobility service is a necessary part of building a shared mobility business. Permits for autonomous vehicle use cases without offering rides to customers are much more likely to be awarded in the near term. Our belief is that once a service has an autonomous permit being used to automate carsharing, it will position them better to receive future permits for more advanced autonomous activities including ride hailing.
Car Hailing: the next version of door-to-door
Autonomous capabilities of carsharing fleet will evolve to drive within a geofenced area 24 hours a day. In the absence of a ride hailing permit, these carsharing providers could use their autonomous technology to deliver cars to customers rather than have them walk to the nearest parked vehicle. The customer would drive themselves to their destination, but when they arrive at the destination the vehicle would park itself or drive off to deliver itself to the next customers. Hence the notion of “Car Hailing” (carsharing with valet delivery) may become a viable interim business combining the convenience of ridesharing with the permit model for carsharing.
Building Autonomous Fleet Smarts
In moving from driven to driverless vehicles, fleet owners will require a platform that incorporates elements of both traditional carsharing and ridehailing. A smartphone app would still be used to validate each customer, providing them with access to a vehicle. Fleet owners will also need to know when and where customers are most likely to need a car, so demand prediction will be just as important as it is today. Additionally, routing algorithms will be essential in determining where, when and how vehicles should be dispatched.
Operators will need a platform that can ensure their autonomous vehicles are maintained and accounted for in any situation. With autonomous fleets, service providers will need a platform in place that can handle maintenance, cleaning, and emergency breakdown conditions as effortlessly as delivering a vehicle.
Ridecell has been building the shared mobility toolkit that has been used to build the world’s leading shared mobility services. With customers that include BMW, Renault and AAA, Ridecell is helping customers build better mobility offerings. Ridecell is perfectly positioned to help carsharing fleet owners move from driven to driverless mobility.
Author: Mark Thomas, VP of Marketing and Alliances, Ridecell