No One in the Driver’s Seat? Robotic Shared Rides of the Future

What do you get when you take two major trends in transport today – ride sharing and self-driving vehicles – and put them together? Robot taxis, of course.

The concept seems like science fiction, but it isn’t so far-fetched. As autonomous driving technology continues to evolve rapidly, a number of companies are planning autonomous taxis – for instance, Tokyo-based Robot Taxi is aimed at providing unmanned cabs in time for the 2020 Olympics in Japan. At the recently held New Economy Summit (NEST) 2016, expert panelists discussed the future of transportation and how it will help change cities into spaces that are more geared toward supporting people instead of vehicles.

Lyft CEO Logan Green at NEST 2016
Lyft CEO Logan Green at NEST 2016

“The transition from taxis to ride-sharing has been one of the biggest job creators in the U.S.,” said panelist Logan Green, cofounder and CEO of ride-sharing company Lyft. “In the next five to 10 years, autonomous vehicles will actually lead to more people using ride-sharing and more job opportunities for drivers.”

It may seem counterintuitive that robot cars would create driver opportunities, but Green said early self-driving cars in ride-sharing services will be slow-moving and will require human drivers in bad weather and when speed is of the essence. Overall, autonomous rides will be inexpensive and encourage more and more people to move on from car ownership, Green predicted. The transition to full-scale autonomous ride-sharing service will displace drivers, he admitted, but there’s time to prepare for that.

“If you look back at history, you’ll see that every major change in infrastructure came with a huge economic boom, such as canals, railways, and highways, and the net benefit will increase productivity by giving people time back in their day,” Green said.

The Lyft leader noted that in cities like Los Angeles, some 50 percent of land is dedicated to car use – be it roads, highways or parking lots.

“I think this is going to change our daily lives and the design of cities in our lifetimes,” Green said. “You’ll have fewer cars on the road, streets won’t be lined with parked cars and houses won’t be built with big garages. Less of the city and less of our lives will be built around the car.”

CEO of Cabify Juan de Antonio at NEST 2016
CEO of Cabify Juan de Antonio at NEST 2016

“When you take vehicles off the streets, cities become better places to live,” agreed panelist Juan de Antonio, founder and CEO of ride-sharing service Cabify, which is focused on markets in Spain and Latin America. The entrepreneur also said that the taxi industry has been shrinking in Japan, but it could grow again if users were given more options and price points through ride-sharing platforms.

With some of the best taxis in the world, Japan has proven to be a difficult market for ride-sharing companies. Uber has been mostly limited to Tokyo, where it offers a luxury car service, while messaging app Line launched a ride-hailing service that works with local taxi companies. Another taxi app, Hailo Japan, has been providing rides in Osaka and breaking into the Tokyo market.

Associate Professor Naoki Suganuma at NEST2016
Associate Professor Naoki Suganuma at NEST2016

It isn’t only big cities where autonomous vehicle technology can help out. Panelist Naoki Suganuma, an associate professor at Kanazawa University who studies autonomous vehicles, said self-driving public transit vehicles could help fill a gap in Japan’s rural areas, where bus services are being thinned out amid an aging population and fewer younger bus drivers.

“Automated driving will offset the dwindling population in rural areas, and new industries will arise,” said Suganuma. “By combining autonomous driving with ride-sharing, we will have many new possibilities.”

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