Driverless Buses: The Specific Medium Trip Proposition: Luxury and Space

cold class cinemas recliners for luxury bus travel

In a previous post, I have explored the problems with short haul bus travel once driverless electric cars are a car ride service. There is a possibility that there may be a sweet spot between long-haul bus and short haul bus services. Bus companies can save significant costs by using driverless electric vehicles. If they use those savings to pamper passengers instead of cutting costs, they may well win the medium haul travel war.

The change of buses to driverless electric buses will make them more competitive with air travel. This is especially true over distances up to the 300-km mark. Most flights in Australia are longer than that, but there are plenty of short-haul flights in other countries. Once the distances get too long the faster speed of planes starts to take a competitive toll. Bus companies might be able to offer a significantly lower price to catch a driverless electric bus from Melbourne to Adelaide (727 km). The problem is that the flight is 1 hour and 20 minutes and the bus trip is around 10 hours depending on traffic. Even allowing for the delays of getting to the airport and moving through through security we are probably talking 3.5 hours versus 11 hours. Only people who cannot afford the fare are going to be taking that bus. Especially when you can get tickets that are sometimes close to competitive with the bus fare if you travel at the right times.

As an example of the medium length trip, let’s take the Sydney to Canberra flight which is 283 km. The flight time is 55 min, and a discount airfare is about $151 plus $25 for a taxi at the other end. Flights to Canberra are often more expensive than most other major city flights in Australia. This is due to the significant demand for flights during the weeks that the Federal Parliament sits. Between the Parliamentary sitting weeks, there are a limited number of flights. According to Greyhound Buses, the bus travel time is 3 hours and 30 minutes to 4 hours.

The reality is that while the flight time is 55 minutes the real travel time is by air is closer to 3 hours. You must be at the gate 30 minutes before the flight leaves. Airport traffic congestion means leaving the CBD at least an hour before that to avoid the risk of missing your flight. At the other end, you need 20 minutes to get a taxi and get to the CBD. Of course, there is some extra time for the bus as well, but it is minimal. So, let’s say it is 3 hours for the flight versus 4.5 hours for the bus. The current saver fare for Greyhound is A$38. If we use our previous assumptions on cost reductions for driverless electric buses (see The Coming Bus Apocalypse) we could get the price down to $23.

You might not be able to attract many more passengers by that cost reduction when the airfare plus taxi is already five times the current bus cost. That is a fair argument. What you can do though is take that price reduction and put it into more comfort and services. This produces a fantastic value proposition when the airlines are just trying to cram in more people. Imagine efficient workstations, Gold Class cinema type recliner chairs, and even nap pods for customers. What about soundproof gaming rooms so your children can game while you relax and take in a movie. Two adults and two kids for $152 for a luxury bus trip versus $625 on the plane sounds like a killer value proposition. The price might remain the same but comfort and experience are much better because the bus company can offer the same price but 60 or 70% more space.
Smaller buses with much better space than planes can come and pick you up from your house or business and take you in luxury. Eliminating the driver from a smaller bus has a much more significant impact per passenger than removing a driver from a larger bus.

Most of the current airline and bus transport models use the principle of maximising capacity utilisation. Most of the costs of driving a bus or flying a plane are fixed costs. Every extra passenger contributes an enormous percentage of their ticket price to the bottom line. Electric driverless buses are likely to head in the opposite direction for journeys where bus trips take not much time than flights.

It is a matter of changing the model where costs per passenger kilometre drive all thinking.

This will have significant implications for bus companies, and bus manufacturers. Bus companies will have to rethink routes and bus configurations. They will also have to rethink customer service. Bus manufacturers will have to rethink bus size, bus interiors, and bus power systems.

Paul Higgins

I am writing a book on autonomous vehicles with Dr Chris Rice . It is called Rise of the Autobots: How Driverless Vehicles will Transform our Economies and our Communities. Follow us here to see more excerpts as we write.

Come visit our website to see more of my work.

Advertisements

Driverless Electric Cars as a Service – One Adoption Scenario

ap_16258099841091

Self-driving Uber vehicles are lined up to take journalists on rides during a media preview at the company’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh earlier this month.

As I ponder the changes that driverless cars will cause across our societies, one of the difficulties is trying to understand what the speed of adoption might be. That is because speed of adoption has huge consequences on the levels of disruption that will occur. The speed of adoption linked into all sorts of factors including:

  • Production bottlenecks in the supply chain such as raw materials, and battery supply.
  • Production capacity for manufacturing of electric driverless cars.
  • Technical issues in achieving true Level 5 automation (think no steering wheel).
  • Political and legal issues around liability and insurance.
  • The balance between the numbers of cars in personal ownership, and the number owned by big companies providing transport services (think Uber/Lyft/Didi and new entrants like Waymo).

 

In turn these factors will be affected by the business models and strategic thinking of the major players. This includes car manufacturers, car ride companies, and governments.
The competition is going to be brutal. Existing car companies will be going up against each other, and new competitors. The new competitors include car ride sharing companies, and new car manufacturers.

Some of the major problems in implementing driverless electric cars as a transport service can be largely solved by car ride companies. The problems include the following:

The Initial Scale/Network Problem

The problem if you want to offer transport as service is you have to get to scale before customers will even contemplate using your service. You cannot put 100 cars on the road and say here I am. This is like the network problem of the first fax machine but on a much larger scale. Who buys the first fax machine? You might buy half a dozen of them so you can communicate between distant offices of the same company. The real value comes when it is a standard system adopted by many people. The problem with transport as a service is that it is much larger. The reality is that people will not use your service until they can consistently get a car in a reasonable time frame to take them wherever they want to go. That needs massive scale and is the reason why Uber was so aggressive in recruiting drivers in target cities. They needed a critical mass to drive customer demand.
A new entrant with electric driverless cars can provide this service but they will need a lot of cars. If you need 100,000 vehicles at peak time in Melbourne (where I live) to supply that service it requires a lot of capital. If the cars cost $50,000 each it is going to cost you $5 billion just for the cars.  That is apart from the costs of the platform to run the system, plus the initial trading losses that will be incurred before breaking even. Not many organisations will have that sort of money, and that might just be for one city. Waymo or Apple might be an exception given the masses of cash that they have. The existing car ride companies got around this problem by using other people’s cars. Difficult to do that for driverless cars although we will explore a model for that in a later post.
The existing car ride companies (Didi, Lyft, Uber, etc) are already at the scale needed to supply the services for their existing customer base. Adding driverless electric cars into that service is somewhat analogous to the electricity grid. Once the standard utility service is in place (think poles, wires, plugs and standards for electricity, and roads and traffic systems for cars) you can make additions as long as they fit the system. You can add a new coal generating plant, or a new gas plant, or new solar capacity and power comes out at the socket. My desk lamp does not care how the power was generated. In the case of a car ride service as long as the customers accept a driverless car you can put that into your system alongside your existing fleet. You may need to drive (sic) demand by offering discounts for the driverless vehicle to get people past their first stages of discomfort. In my case the safety factor is likely to be the key initial driver for change but I am an outlier.

The Capital Problem

If you are a company that wants to supply transport as a service you will want to scale as fast as you can. Ideally you will offer a service in 50 cities in the first 3 – 5 years. If we assume that takes 100,000 vehicles in each city and each car costs $50,000 you now have a cost of $250 billion. If you add in technology platform costs , and initial losses you might have to find $350 billion. That is a lot of coin in anyone’s language. Even if the required vehicle numbers are much lower it is still going to be a massive capital investment.
Even if you don’t move that fast you will have to make large bets in the target cities where you first invest.
If you are a car ride company you can scale by steadily adding cars to your existing services in all those cities. That should have the effect of reducing your costs, and improving your bottom line at a much slower capital burn rate. You can also play a much more agile strategic game. If you perceive a threat in a particular market you can scale faster in that market and slower in other markets. If adoption rates are faster in one city you can rapidly scale up volume in that city by slowing each of your other markets just a little.

The Technical Problem

The technical problem is getting to level 5 automation as soon as possible. Level 5 automation is when there is no driver required in any location or conditions. Any driverless car company will have to convince the regulatory authorities of safety at level 5.  The existing ride companies have an advantage here. They already have masses of data on the travel their existing cars undertake. They can also start with say 100 driverless vehicles within their existing service. That will consist of testing them in real conditions with paid drivers in the vehicles. While a lot of advances in driverless car systems are being made using computer simulations nothing fully substitutes for real world data. Especially for politicians and for regulatory authorities.  That real world data can then be fed back into simulation systems to gain an advantage in simulation programs

Existing car ride companies are the most likely path to adoption of driverless electric cars. These types of cars provide significant reductions in the cost structures for car ride services. This means that if they sit on their hands someone will come along and blow their existing services out of the water. The car ride companies have the competitive imperative to go down this path. They also have some significant competitive advantages in executing the strategy. That does not mean they will be successful, just that they have a head start.

In our next post we will take a closer look at some of the players, and the tactics that might be involved.

I am writing a book on autonomous vehicles with Dr Chris Rice from Texas. It is called Rise of the Autobots: How Driverless Vehicles will Transform our Economies and our Communities. Stay tuned for more excerpts as we finalise the book.

Note: Featured image is from NPR