Daimler and Uber announced a collaboration back in 2017, paving the way for robo-taxis.
Daimler and Uber announced a collaboration back in 2017, paving the way for robo-taxis.
( Source: Daimler)

Robo-taxis Robo-taxis: the clever way to get a ride

Author / Editor: Jason Unrau / Erika Granath

Frictionless, automated, personalized travel on demand—that's the dream of the future of mobility. Robo-taxis offers it all, plus solutions to problems with congestion and air pollutions. But will they work in practice?

It used to be that hailing a taxi required a whistle and a wave to get a yellow cab to stop for you. Taxi drivers would navigate busy streets and try to make small talk while distracting you from the climbing fare. But transportation options have evolved rapidly in recent years with ride-sharing and car-sharing becoming mainstream. Soon⁠—possibly much sooner than you expect⁠—driverless taxis could become the norm. Robo-taxis.

What is a robo-taxi?

As a relatively new facet of the on-demand mobility movement, robo-taxis may not be common knowledge. They're also known by the terms robo-cab, driverless taxi, and self-driving taxi.

A robo-taxi is an autonomous car operated as a ride-hailing service. When a potential fare requests a ride, the robo-taxi can respond to the call fully on its own. It eliminates the need for a human to be ready and alert as it has the potential to change how people approach car ownership.

For vehicle requirements, it must be either a Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous vehicle (AV)⁠—that is, able to operate completely without driver input. Level 4 still has driver controls but attention to the road isn't required, where a Level 5 is fully autonomous and a steering wheel is optional.

What taking a robo-taxi could look like

When picturing commuting in a self-driving pod, the image you get in your head can appear surreal, a little like something from a sci-fi movie. You open an app on your smartphone and request a robo-taxi immediately, or possibly schedule one for your early-morning commute. In the app, your start and finish locations are determined. Likely, an estimate of expected charges is provided in real-time, factoring in things like the current traffic situation and demand for robo-taxis in your area that day.

The taxi arrives at the time you've scheduled, and you climb inside. With no driver struggling to keep a canned conversation with you, you can use the time commuting productively⁠—catching up on a doc for work or taking a short nap, for example. If you desire, multiple fares could share your robo-taxi, splitting the cost.

Like Uber or Lyft, your account is connected to your credit card to process payment, so there's no need to bring cash or fumble for correct change or a tip to the driver. A ride with a robo-taxi will, most likely, be kinder on your wallet than a trip with a 'manned' cab. After all, there are no 'drivers' wages to pay.

Where the industry stands

Technological advancements in recent years mean that technology required to make robo-taxis a part of people's daily life is there. Still, there are no self-driving pods on our streets, at least not outside of testing.

There's no shortage of players in the automotive and mobility industries that aim to bring their robo-cabs to market first. Collaborations between high-profile carmakers and mobility services that aim to bring the first robo-taxi into mass production have been announced in the past years; General Motors and Lyft, Daimland softer A.G. and Uber, Ford Motor Company and Argo AI, to name a few.

Perhaps the most visible player in the e-hailing service is Tesla. In April 2019, Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk announced that the leading electric vehicle carmaker plans to launch their robo-taxi service in 2020. Regulatory approval remains an obstacle to overcome, but the outspoken entrepreneur is confident that Robo-Taxi will be in operation somewhere during 2020.

Unlike traditional taxi services, an owner of an AV-equipped vehicle could assign their vehicle to the robo-taxi network, according to Musk. While the vehicle isn't in use, it can generate income for the owner.

There are still several roadblocks for robo-taxis to overcome

Technology that can support autonomous driving and robo-taxis may exist, but it's more than regulatory approval that stands in the way for full adoption of robo-taxis. The effects e-hailing with A.V.s could have on the job market are vast. More than 200,000 taxi drivers and chauffeurs were employed in the U.S. alone in 2018. With the introduction of robo-taxis, there may be a serious effect on employment rates.

Possibly even more intriguing is the effect self-driving taxis could have on car ownership. Should the transportation service become mainstream, car dealers could experience a steep decline on vehicle purchases as drivers opt for non-traditional transportation methods. The automotive retail industry in the U.S. employs more than two million people. Manufacturers may have a reason to drag their heels to implement autonomous taxis.

Robo-taxis, as autonomous vehicles in general, have the potential to change how ride-hailing services look. When and how they’re adopted is still up in the air, but it appears to be only a matter of months before the first robo-taxi outside of testing hits the streets.