Self-Driving Cars a Boon for Personal Transportation

The one-person self-driving taxi is a very practical vehicle, says analyst Brad Templeton, and it’s possible to make it much cheaper than today’s cars.

Photo Caption: Cheap robotaxi service under 50 cents/mile will suddenly make personal car transportation economically accessible. (Photo Credit: Zipcar)

Electronics go obsolete faster?

Some parts of the car need a shorter lifespan. The computers, sensors and electronics will be improving on the Moore’s law curve. Nobody wants a 5-year-old cell phone, and so it’s a good thing that robotaxis will wear out faster - or at least may be designed so their electronic parts can be cheaply swapped out every few years to stay competitive.

Cars get cheaper, way cheaper

The one-person robotaxi is a very practical vehicle, and it’s possible to make it much cheaper than today’s cars, even with a fairly luxurious interior. The robocar sensor package is already dropping quickly in price, and will soon be under $1,000. Like all computerized electronics, it will keep dropping. One person short range vehicles can be made very cheaply in volume.

The robotaxi does not need or want a complex dashboard and fancy entertainment system. Your tablet or phone does that for you. Think more about a nice luxurious chair in a box. You’re more likely to want a little fridge, or a desk than what you put in a car today. Urban cars could drop to just a few thousand dollars with mass production. Customers who care about price will demand these cheap rides. Others will demand luxury rides but they will cost less than today’s $80,000 luxury boxes.

Once the price of batteries drops - and that’s going to happen - the electric power trains will also be cheaper than the ICE ones.

Today an UberX ride costs $2/mile, and owning your own car costs about 50-60 cents/mile when new, dropping when the car gets older, plus parking. Robocars won’t pay much for parking, and there’s no reason that a robotaxi ride should not cost something similar. And a ride in a one-person $7,000 robotaxi that lasts 500,000 miles? That’s going to cost under 25 cents/mile.

The bad news here for car companies: Even if the equation says they sell more cars, they sell a lot of them for much less money, dropping the dollar volume of their business. (Maybe - see below.)

People share rides, or maybe not

One way the total vehicle miles in the equation could go down while the personal miles go up is if people share rides more often. This requires multi-seat robotaxis, but the success of UberPool and LyftLines, which do shared rides, suggests big potential here. Indeed, I see something much grander possible at rush hour, which I will describe in my forthcoming article on the future of transit.

Robotaxis for sharing could be much better than what we have now. Even in the traditional car form factor you could see a car with a divider so each passenger has their own private space, not even needing to see the other rider. With good ride coordination people never go far out of their way, and with multiple robotaxis, people never go any distance out of their way ever, but do have to change taxis once or twice in 30 second switch-offs. The potential for very pleasant ride-share service is there, and that could bump vehicle occupancy a lot and thus reduce the top of the equation, and the number of cars made.

But there’s a snag, and it’s the price point described above. Today, with UberX at $2/mile, sharing is an attractive financial proposition. Cut your cost by 30-40% for some inconvenience is a winning offer when the cost of the ride is $10 or especially $50 like my recent airport ride.

But if the cost is 30 cents/mile and your trip is 5 miles, are you going to accept any hassle to reduce the $1.50 cost to $1 or even $0.50? It’s a lot less likely, though it could be likely at peak-use times when there simply aren’t enough vehicles to serve the demand. Indeed, one of the advantages of making larger cars (like today’s 4 passenger vehicles) is that such a fleet has much more ability to absorb peak load by encouraging and eventually requiring pleasant efficient sharing. While it’s more expensive to build and run a 4 seat car than a 1 seat car, it isn’t 4 times as expensive, so the likely fleet does not have the perfect mix of vehicle sizes you might otherwise choose.

Delivery robots reduce shopping trips

You may recall that I am working at Starship Technologies on delivery robots. These delivery robots will be super efficient in energy and road use. Some estimates suggest that 30 percent of trips today are shopping trips, and we could put a real dent in that, along with the general move to online shopping and delivery. After all, a UPS truck full of Amazon packages is, in a way, people sharing the ride.

But far more people now can afford private car transportation

Of the factors above, sharing rides and making longer-lived cars could reduce the number of cars needed, and the reduction in car cost reduces the total the world spends on cars (as well as the energy required to build them.) Perhaps those factors might counter the additional travel and the empty miles.

One factor will overwhelm all of this, however. Cheap robotaxi service under 50 cents/mile will suddenly make personal car transportation economically accessible. Drop to 30 cents/mile or even 10 cents/mile in poorer economies, and we’re talking vastly more accessible to billions of new people. The market may already be mostly saturated in the United States which has vast car ownership, but the global average is about 15 percent. It’s going to grow, and by a lot. The car industry is facing a boom, not a bust from this technology.

This may sound like a nightmare to those who blame private cars for many of our environmental and urban woes. Fortunately the picture is not quite the same with these cars which are far more likely to be efficient, low-emitting and sustainable, indeed more sustainable than the transit systems we use today. (Indeed, they could be combined with a new vision of even more sustainable transit during peak times.)

The parking story is good, though

While I have said this in other places it is worth noting that while car sharing does not reduce the number of cars on the road, it vastly reduces the amount of parking needed, in fact in many places reduces it to zero, and that’s good news for everybody.

One reason why car sharing companies like Zipcar have published statistics such as “Each zipcar replaces 12 cars” - leading people to the false conclusion that robocars shrink the size of the car industry - is that Zipcar sucks. What I mean is not that it’s a bad product, but compared to robotaxi service (or even services like Car2Go, DriveNow or Uber) it’s terrible.

Trips in a typical car share car discourage car use, because they make it inferior in two ways. First, they have the hassle of going to get the car, and returning it to the same spot, and they make you think about your car travel by the hour so that you understand its real cost. This means you are very unlikely to sign out a zipcar to do a short shopping errand. It’s good for people to understand the cost of what they do, and probably good for cities, but these principles just won’t apply to the low cost robotaxi.

About the Author

Brad Templeton · Brad Templeton is a developer of and commentator on self-driving cars. He writes and researches the future of automated transportation at
Contact Brad Templeton:  ·  View More by Brad Templeton.
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