Fully autonomous ‘robo-taxis’ have been the Holy Grail for investors and operators looking to shed the biggest cost of any transport provider... the person behind the wheel.
In some regions around the world, fully-automated private hire vehicles are currently crawling around the streets of America and China looking for bookings via an app. These trials remain tightly restricted in areas that can handle the Lidar technology.
There’s no denying that autonomous vehicle technology is making progress. Whether it will reach ‘Level 5’ in most cities, which is fully-automated without the need of a driver, the jury remains out. In more controlled motoring environments, like on motorways or on low-speed shuttle runs, autonomy can definitely play a role in mobility. But can a driverless car navigate Soho on a Friday night? Can the technology safely work in the snow or other conditions when nature covers road markings? Can the technology help people with their luggage and assist with all mobility needs? There are certainly lots of questions that need answering ahead.
The UK Government does seem keen on the idea of autonomous driving. They say the innovation will create jobs and improve access to people. We remain unsure of that claim given the huge number of people working as drivers who would be made redundant.
The previous Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said this summer: “The benefits of self- driving vehicles have the potential to be huge. Not only can they improve people’s access to education and other vital services, but the industry itself can create tens of thousands of job opportunities throughout the country.
“Most importantly, they’re expected to make our roads safer by reducing the dangers of driver error in road collisions.
“We want the UK to be at the forefront of developing and using this fantastic technology, and that is why we are investing millions in vital research into safety and setting the legislation to ensure we gain the full benefits that this technology promises.”
Let’s say it happens for argument’s sake. There are driverless vehicles driving around offering to pick up people. There’s even taxi ranks where people can walk up to the vehicle and request a ride for a fraction of the cost currently offered. Where does that leave the profession of highly trained taxi drivers?
The taxi industry is a very reactive trade that firefights what is immediately in front of them. If, and it remains a big if, fully autonomous taxis take off there needs to be some security for those in the sector. The industry could push for a medallion style limit on the number of autonomous taxi licences for example. Their own licences would then have some value to either be sold to an operator or leased out as part of the transition.
There’ll be little that can be done to stop the pre- booked nature of a driverless vehicle and in turn saving the jobs of Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) drivers. However, if these vehicles plan to ply-for-hire and show availability on taxi ranks and street corners... there will need to be licensing changes.