A robotaxi, also known as a self-driving taxi or a driverless taxi, is an autonomous car (SAE automation level 4 or 5) operated for a ridesharing company.
The fact of eliminating the need for a human chauffeur, which represents a significant part of the operating costs of that type of service, could make it a very affordable solution for the customers and accelerate the spreading of Transportation-as-a-Service (TaaS) solutions as opposed to individual car ownership. However, it raises the issue of job destruction.
Several studies highlighted that robot-taxis operated in an Autonomous Mobility on Demand (AMoD) service could be one of the most rapidly adopted applications of autonomous cars at scale and a major mobility solution in the near future, especially in urban areas, providing the majority of vehicle miles in the United States within a decade of their first introduction. Moreover, they could have a very positive impact on road safety, traffic congestion, and parking. Concerning pollution and consumption of energy and other resources, robot-taxis could lead to significant improvement since these services will most probably use electric cars and for most of the rides, less vehicle size and range is necessary compared to usual, individually owned vehicles. The expectable reduction of the number of vehicles means less embodied energy but energy consumption for redistribution of empty vehicles must be taken into account.
First operational tests
Several companies are testing robot-taxi services, especially in Asia and in the United-States. In most tests, there are human chauffeurs or “safety drivers” in these test cars to take control back in case of an emergency.
In August 2016, MIT spinoff NuTonomy was the first company to make robot-taxis available to the public, starting to offer rides with a fleet of 6 modified Renault Zoes and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs in a limited area in Singapore. NuTonomy later signed three significant partnerships to develop its robot-taxi service: with Grab, Uber’s rival in Southeast Asia, with Groupe PSA, which is supposed to provide the company with Peugeot 3008 SUVs and the last one with Lyft to launch a robotaxi service in Boston.
In September 2016, Uber started allowing a select group of users in Pittsburgh to order robot-taxis from a fleet of 14 modified Ford Fusions. The test extended to San Francisco with modified Volvo XC90s before being relocated to Tempe, Arizona in February 2017. In March 2017, one of Uber’s robot-taxis crashed in self-driving mode in Arizona, which led the company to suspend its tests before resuming them a few days later.
In early 2017, Waymo, the Google self-driving car project which became an independent company in 2016, started a large public robot-taxi test in Phoenix using 100 and then 500 more Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans provided by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles as part of a partnership between the two companies. Waymo also signed a deal with Lyft to collaborate on self-driving cars in May 2017. In November 2017, Waymo revealed it had begun to operate some of its automated vehicles in Arizona without a safety driver behind the wheel.
In August 2017, Cruise Automation, a self-driving startup acquired by General Motors in 2016, launched the beta version of a robot-taxi service for its employees in San Francisco using a fleet of 46 Chevrolet Bolt EVs.
Tesla, Inc. has announced they are planning to launch their robot-taxis service by 2020. “I feel very confident predicting autonomous robot-taxi for Tesla next year. Not in all jurisdictions, because we won’t have regulatory approval everywhere, but I’m confident we’ll have at least regulatory approvals somewhere, literally next year” -Elon Musk in April 2019.
According to Elon Musk, CEO of the company, any customer will be able to add their car to the “Tesla Network”. They claimed that it would be a combination of Uber and Airbnb models. In the announcement, Elon Musk expected that car owners would be able to add or subtract their car from the network. Adding the car to the fleet would be done by selecting “Commit your car to the fleet”, and can then be removed by selecting a “Summon Tesla” option. The features are part of a planned app update according to Elon. In exchange, Tesla plans to take between 25-30% of the revenue. In places where there are not enough cars shared by car owners, Tesla would have dedicated Tesla vehicles.
Many automakers have announced their plans to develop robot-taxis before 2025 and specific partnerships have been signed between automakers, technology providers, and service operators. The most significant disclosed information includes:
- Japan’s plan to have an operational robot-taxi service running for the 2020 Olympic Games thanks to the company Robot Taxi, a joint venture between DeNA and ZMP;
- The startup Zoox announcing in 2015 its ambition to build a robot-taxi from scratch;
- Delphi being selected in 2016 by the Singapore Land Transport Authority to run robot-taxi tests that are yet to be launched;
- Daimler AG teaming up with Bosch in 2017 to develop the software for a robot-taxi service by 2025;
- The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance partnering with Transdev and DeNA to develop robot-taxi services within 10 years from 2017;
- Volkswagen releasing during the 2017 Geneva Motor Show its autonomous concept car Sedric, which could be used as a robot-taxi;
- General Motors and Lyft partnering to deploy a large robot-taxi test fleet in 2018 (following a $500 million investment made by General Motors in Lyft in 2016);
- Ford Motor’s plan to develop a robot-taxi by 2021 thanks to several partnerships;
- Daimler AG partnering with Uber in 2017 to operate a fleet of autonomous Mercedes cars on Uber’s network;
- BMW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles partnering with Intel and Mobileye to develop robot-taxis by 2021;
- Honda releasing in 2017 an autonomous concept car, NeuV, that aims at being a personal robot-taxi;
- Baidu partnering with Nvidia to develop autonomous cars and robot-taxis;
- Ford Motor investing $1 billion in the startup Argo AI to develop autonomous cars and robot-taxis;
- Voyage, a spin-out of Udacity’s self-driving car nanodegree program launched in 2017, aiming at creating its own robot-taxi service using retrofitted mass-production cars;
- Lyft partnering with the startup Drive.ai in 2017 to launch a pilot robot-taxi service in the San Francisco Bay Area in the coming years;
- Lyft and Ford partnering in 2017 to add Ford’s self-driving cars to Lyft’s ride-hailing network;
- Lyft’s cars ownership will be fully transferred to the company be the end of 2025 and 25.9% of the household population
- Delphi buying the startup NuTonomy for $400 million in 2017;
- Parsons Corporation announcing a partnership with automated mobility operating system company Renovo. auto to deploy and scale AMoD services;
- The French startup Navya revealing, in 2017, its robot-taxi, the Autonom Cab, that will first be tested through a partnership with Keolis and RAC and then sold to other companies from Q3 2018;
- Google leading a $1 billion investment in 2017 in Lyft which could support Waymo’s robotaxi strategy;
- Aptiv and Lyft testing robot-taxis during the 2018 Las Vegas CES;
- Volkswagen and Hyundai announcing, during the 2018 Las Vegas CES, a partnership with the startup Aurora, founded by one of the co-founders of Google’s self-driving cars project, to develop vehicles for Moia, Volkswagen’s ride-hailing network;
- Didi Chuxing partnering with the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance and other automakers to explore the future launch of robotaxi services in China.
- AutoX (which is backed by Alibaba) mentioned that the first fully-autonomous robotaxis could be on the roads by the end of the year 2020.
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