Here come the self-driving taxis

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FOR THE first time in decades, a futuristic transportation technology is on the verge of going mass market. It is not quite flying cars, but autonomous taxis—or “robotaxis”, as they are sometimes called. They will transform cities and business travel, and will hit some other industries hard on the way too.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, a tech firm, is planning to launch the world’s first commercial driverless taxi service early next month in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo, which has yet to announce a name or launch date for the service, is also aiming to put autonomous taxis on the streets of California next year. Daimler and Bosch, respectively a carmaker and an engineering firm from Germany, announced this month that they would launch a self-driving ride-hailing service in San Jose, California, next year. General Motors, an American carmaker, is also hoping to launch a robotaxi service next year using its Cruise vehicles. Zoox, a tech startup, aims to put its own all-electric self-driving taxis on the road by 2020.

There will surely be more hiccups that will delay the launch of these services. Any accident involving an autonomous vehicle generates a blizzard of bad press and calls for the projects to be delayed or halted. Waymo is intentionally taking things slowly to avoid these types of setbacks. Some cars will have backup drivers, although the company’s modified Chrysler Pacifica vehicles are expected to drive themselves more than 99.9% of the time.

All these vehicles will start off operating in limited (or “geofenced”) urban areas. But it is only a matter of time before these services are widely available to business travellers. The impact will be substantial. On a fundamental level, they could make travel much more productive. Rather than sitting at the wheel or making small talk with a driver, travellers could hop onboard and power up their laptops to do work.

And there are high hopes that they will become cheaper than cars driven by humans. At first, Waymo’s fares will be competitive with conventional ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. But they are expected to drop when the cars lose their backup drivers and the service gains economies of scale due to growing use. Some commentators speculate that it could be possible to make self-driving taxis free to use, rather like websites, where free content is paid for by a constant deluge of advertisements and data harvesting. David Roberts of Vox, a news site, argues that this is a nightmare scenario for where the industry could go.

In places like Phoenix, where there is relatively little public transport, self-driving taxis could liberate residents and business travellers from the steering wheel, allowing them to be more productive. But in cities like New York and London, if they become cheaper than public transport—or at least competitively priced and more convenient—they could worsen traffic and decimate rail and bus services. Airports are also bracing for the arrival of autonomous vehicles, which could cut into their revenue from parking and other fees. And in the distant future, it is possible that self-driving taxis or shuttles could become an attractive alternative to air travel for some trips. For flights of between 200 and 500 miles, they could save considerable time by cutting out the hassle of travelling to and from the airport and going through security. Cars could also feature lay-flat beds that would make overnight trips on the road palatable and eliminate the need for both a flight and a hotel room.

Whether Waymo will become the Uber of self-driving taxis remains to be seen. But its technology looks promising and it is arriving much sooner than many other industries might have hoped.

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