Making the Business Case for Robotaxis

Article By : George Leopold

Mobility services are seen displacing ride-hailing, but not car ownership.

As we’ve reported, robotaxis are poised to emerge over the next decade as an early “mobility services” application. A handful of pilot projects are underway, with a lengthy list of entrants aiming for SAE Level 4 autonomous vehicles able to operate without a driver in designated areas and dry roads.

Lux Research makes the business case for robotaxis, asserting that emerging mobility services will cost less per mile than current conventional taxis and rail-hailing services. The wild card, the market tracker notes, is whether robotaxis will replace car ownership.

Current ride-hailing services vary by region: about $2 per mile in North America, $1 in China. Lux estimates operating costs for robotaxis could trend as low as $0.29 per mile, meaning operators could eventually leave ride-hailing services by the side of the road.

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Despite the hefty upfront investment, car ownership remains cheaper, about $0.10 per mile for electric vehicles, Lux Research reckons. That estimate includes fuel and maintenance costs, but appears to omit collision and liability insurance.

“Robotaxi operations will be disruptive to incumbent ride-hailing companies due to the significantly more favorable economics,” the market analyst noted in its robotaxi assessment released in late October. “Ultimately, robotaxis will not meaningfully displace car ownership.” One reason, it noted, is “the social status ascribed to car ownership.”

Lux notes that basic robotaxis technologies are in hand, and pilot projects are in the midst of required testing and refinement. It predicts that “geofenced” Level 4 autonomous vehicles deemed safe for mobility services will transition from pilot testing to commercial operations within the decade.

Still, technology development remains an expensive proposition, and success depends on deep pockets and patient capital investments needed to achieve Level 4 performance. Lux notes that the current market leaders are backed by major automakers: Cruise with GM and Honda; Waymo with Google; and Argo AI with Ford and VW.

(Click on image to enlarge.)

The robotaxi assessment notes that Waymo and AutoX have racked up the most testing miles and are embarking on driverless ride pilots. Our colleague Egil Juliussen has reported that Cruise planned to launch a pilot robotaxi service in California once regulators give the green light.

Among the challenges faced by robotaxi developers is stiff competition for engineering talent.

Assuming that conventional car ownership remains steady, automakers are betting that potential reductions in maintenance and insurance costs will provide a return in their robotaxi investments.

“Automakers should not necessarily ignore the opportunity completely,” Lux noted. “Robotaxi operators still need to use automobiles, and no major operators have designed and built their own vehicles.

“Furthermore, automakers and their suppliers can and should consider using robotaxi deployments for development purposes. Using robotaxi operations to advance technical capabilities while understanding how consumers interact with them is a promising strategy.”

Prices for EVs and energy aren’t likely to come down any time soon. The post-pandemic urge to travel—to and from the airport or just to city centers—could help create greater demand for emerging mobility services that someday may be able to transport riders from door to door. That is, if they can be shown to be safe.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Colin Barnden is principal analyst at Semicast Research and has over 25 years of experience as an industry analyst. He is considered a world expert on market trends for automotive vision-based driver monitoring systems (DMS). He holds a B.Eng. (Hons) in Electrical & Electronic Engineering from Aston University in England and has covered the automotive electronics market since 1999.

Subscribe to Newsletter

Leave a comment