The rise of the robotaxi by Ken Rayner

23 Aug 2023

The rise of the robotaxi by Ken Rayner

When it comes to personal transportation needs, Uber has been the main disrupter in the market since 2009. Uber's radical business model, explosive growth, and numerous controversies have made it one of the most fascinating companies to emerge in recent years. Its global ride-sharing app made it the most valuable company in the world at one point and although the road hasn’t always been smooth, Uber remains the leading company in this space with a reported 7.6 billion trips in 2022, $31.9 billion in revenue and a net loss of $9.1 billion. 

Just when we thought we’d seen it all, driverless vehicles appeared on our streets. It’s not yet a common sight in the UK but in the US, it’s becoming the norm to see a variety of autonomous vehicles, particularly in centres of technological focus such as San Francisco. There’s still a range of hurdles for this technology to become more widely accepted in society outside of these hotspots and testing is very much ongoing, but it’s clear that in some shape or form, we’ll start to see self-driving vehicles on our roads in the not-too-distant future.

The notion that humans can be replaced by robots has been emerging in plain sight for over a decade now, but the technology has been difficult to refine given our existing infrastructure, legal parameters, and insurance requirements. Incredibly, most of these issues have now been overcome and robotaxis can already be seen operating on the streets of San Francisco. The two leading robotaxi companies, GM's Cruise and Alphabet's Waymo, are expanding commercial services to cities across the US, including Austin, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City. They're scaling up fast, and a third company, Amazon's Zoox, is hot on their heels.

The new breed of cars has a solid track record when negotiating the difficulties of the urban motoring environment with few incidents to report, but the public isn’t easily convinced and is proving a tough nut to crack. In a recent survey in the US, over half the men and 72% of women said they wouldn’t enter a driverless vehicle. Industry executives remain sanguine and steadfast in their belief that it’s only a matter of time before this attitude shifts as people experience and get used to the new tech and start to embrace the safety benefits.

Data indicates that the ratio of journeys made, relative to accidents, is far better than the human driven car equivalent but right now, any incident that involves an autonomous vehicle is splashed all over the papers. By eliminating the need for a human driver, robotaxis have the potential to significantly reduce traffic congestion and pollution, as well as improve safety on the roads, but not everyone is on board.

One group in the US, ‘Safe Street Rebel’, discovered that by placing a cone on the bonnet of the vehicle, autonomous cars were rendered immobile, so they pursued a programme of disruption. The San Franciso Fire Department have also raised complaints given their call outs have been interrupted 55 times this year by robotaxis causing blockages, which is clearly an issue that needs urgent attention and resolution. Teething problems like these need to be addressed if autonomous cars are to be more widely accepted and achieve their full potential. The US public won’t tolerate issues for long and it’s likely that the UK public will be even harder to convince given how congested our urban environments already are. There are lots of ‘what ifs’ that need to be answered before the public gets on board.

AI models data using deep learning algorithms which means that an autonomous vehicle can perform the same functions as a human driver in terms of recognition, decision-making and sensory functions but even with the advancements made in recent years, improvements are still needed to build public trust and knowledge surrounding emerging vehicle technology. There’s acceptance and interest in partially automated vehicle technology but attitudes toward fully self-driving vehicles are still largely untrusting and tentative.

Progress to date has been slower than many investors had hoped for, but wider acceptance is coming, trailblazed by the US. Tesla has been integrating AI into its cars since its inception and has developed some of the most advanced AI-powered features in the automotive market. BMW, Nvidia and General Motors are also heavily invested in this area. AI in automotive market size exceeded $6 billion in 2022 and is projected to expand at over 55% CAGR from 2023 to 2032. The potential safety benefits are huge and the energy saving obvious, so it seems only a matter of time before autonomous vehicles become part of our everyday lives. Larry Page, the founder of Google, thinks that autonomous vehicles could be big business, conceivably even greater than the mighty Google in terms of earning potential. Watch this space - we may be relinquishing control of our steering wheels sooner than we think…

Ken Rayner, CEO

Katie Poulson, Client Engagement & Marketing Manager


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