Will package delivery via autonomous vehicles provide a path for those people who can least afford mobility, the so-called mobility disadvantaged? Specifically, does Amazon’s purchase of Zoox hint at a world where the world’s largest online seller becomes the low-cost people mover? And, if so, what are the implications for public spaces, the built environment, and human-to-human interaction?
These were some of the questions tackled by an all-star panel on July 20th, 2020 moderated by Compass Transportation’s Dick Mudge as part of the SmartDrivingCar’s Driving the Debate “Zoom-inar” series. The panel’s provocateur, Brad Templeton set the stage for the conversation by describing how Zoox’s path led to its acquisition by Amazon.
He described the autonomous vehicle market as one that is becoming a battle of the tech giants against car giants; with Tesla being the outlier that is a combination tech and car giant. Further, Templeton sees this as a clash of cultures. In other words, is it a car with a computer or a computer with wheels? He puts his money on the tech giants.
For Amazon, automating logistics will be significant for its bottom line. Even more so, it will have a huge impact on retail. Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser, the driver behind the Driving the Debate webinar series, thinks that this is a “no brainer’ as “free delivery” is key to Amazon’s business and is the basis of their motivation, as automation will eliminate expenses and flow directly to their bottom line. Kornhauser believes that this is the first step to automated mobility for people.
Utopia or Dystopia – How will automation change the city? #
Templeton posed the question as to what the city will look like in the future?
Robin Chase, a co-founder of Zipcar and author of PEERS INC, wonders what happens to the community, specifically small business retail and frontline workers, in a world where the delivery of most goods and many services is direct to the doorstep. The explosion of, what Chase calls, RATs – Retail Autonomous Trips – could overwhelm city streets and sidewalks. The concentration of power among a couple of vertically integrated providers also concerns Chase.
Henry Greenidge, Esq., Fellow-In-Residence at the NYU McSilver Institute of Poverty Policy and Research and formerly with Cruise/GM, echoed Chase’s concern about concentrated power by a few companies, such as Amazon and Google, and likened it to trusts of the 19th century, such as the railroads. At the same time, Greenidge said that Amazon also has the power and the foundation to do some good things in terms of improving mobility for the underserved. The question is whether they have the will.
And Greenich stressed that bringing the black community into the discussion regarding the introduction of autonomous mobility. He says that you have to actively dismantle systemic racism as part of that process. And the results of that process could lead to some interesting hybrid business models between the communities and conglomerates.
As an example, Amazon could distribute its automated mobility through a local franchise model, according to Jane Lappin, founder & co-chair of the Automated Vehicles Symposium and independent consultant, She said this would benefit communities by keeping profits local.
It isn’t too difficult to see how Amazon could do this by extending its Amazon Delivery Service Partner program to include autonomous vehicles. This franchise-like program creates owner-operators with as little as $10,000 in start-up costs and with fleets of up to 20 to 40 vehicles.
Templeton pointed out that automation promises huge societal benefits by reducing the cost of package delivery to less than a dollar for package delivery, while the cost of mobility could drop to as low as thirty cents per mile. This assumes ridesharing coupled with single-person, electric vehicles, which as Templeton points out on his blog, are the most efficient from a dollar per pound delivered.
Who is in Control – Corporation, Government, or Consumer? #
Templeton’s analysis indicates that the autonomous ride-hailing market will only support two or three competitors. Templeton and Chase agreed that, in the long-run, Amazon poses a significant competitive threat to, arguably, the current autonomous mobility leader, Waymo.
Mudge asked the question of whether the government or big corporations should control the rollout of autonomous vehicles. He pointed out that restrictive local regulations that favored taxis are what gave rise to the TNCs (Transportation Network Companies, e.g. Uber).
Chase, who also is a co-founder of Veniam, believes part of the answer lies in data sharing so that customers are not locked into a specific platform and specific application. Paraphrasing Chase, data is the new oil in terms of what will be a major fuel for efficient mobility. It leads to questions of policy and pricing externalities, emphasized Chase.
These externalities include pollution, public rights-of-way usage, and building codes (e.g. mandated parking requirements). King Gee, Director of Safety and Mobility at AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials), emphasized that public acceptance is a huge issue and needs to be addressed before the promulgation of rules. He further indicated that ridesharing is going to be a critical part of congestion reduction.
Chase argues that price is the key to the adoption of ridesharing and points to the success of TNCs, Although, as she pointed out earlier in the conversation, venture capitalists have effectively been subsidizing rides for these money-losing operations. Kornhauser indicates that quality of service is another critical factor (e.g. allow you to get from point A to B with minimal friction with a safe, comfortable experience).
Greenidge closes by echoing Chase’s concern about what mobility automation will do to human relationships. By eliminating human drivers and delivery workers, community touchpoints are lost.
Based on the spirited discussion among these experts, preserving and strengthening human-to-human connections, while gaining the benefits of lower-cost transportation could prove to be the biggest challenges to and the determinant of success for automated mobility.
[Disclosure: This author has a very small role in producing these excellent webinars. ]