Google’s electric self-driving two seaters: A milestone towards autonomous mobility services

With the unveiling of their new electric-mini cars Google’s self driving car strategy is becoming more and more evident. By the standards of the auto industry, these cars have many obvious drawbacks: they are very small, can only seat two persons, speed is limited to 25mph, range is also quite limited, the big sensor on top is seen by some (including Daimler’s CEO Zetsche) as an eyesore. They will be hard to sell.

But this is not the point. Google has set their sight on reinventing mobility, not just on building a self-driving car. These cars no longer need to be tethered to a person; they can roam freely and provide shared mobility services to anyone at prices that are significantly lower than individually-owned cars. This is the picture, that Google’s project leader Chris Urmson has in mind when he envisions cities without parking lots (no more need to park these cars, they can transport others in the mean time).

Google’s investment in Uber, their clear focus on fully autonomous driving are all parts of the same picture. It will be very hard for the auto industry to compete on this field because it means cannibalizing their own products, completely transforming their purchase-oriented business model which has served them well for more than a century towards a service-oriented model and fundamentally rethinking the concept of a car.

Google won’t need to sell these cars. They will organize mobility. They already excel at mapping and travel planning, but in the future they will send a car to pick you up wherever you are and bring you where you want to go. They will predict, balance and aggregate mobility demand. Billions are spent for individual mobility. Google should be able to grab a significant share of this market once their mobility-on-demand services are ready.

Decisions on the path to future mobility – Research Forum

The 6th research forum on mobility took place on May 8 in Duisburg, Germany. With a good mix of presentations from academia and industry, a wide array of topics was covered. Electric mobility was regarded with much more enthusiasm as many speakers saw battery prices coming down faster than anticipated by most think tanks.

Futurist Lars Thomsen discussed many tipping points for the auto industry; he expects autonomous cars to perform better than the average driver by 2017 and also noted that fleets of autonomous pods will become the dominant medium for transport in mega cities, where most people will no longer own a car. At the same time he did not connect the dots and consider the impact on the demand side and the implications for OEMs.

This fit well with the topic of my presentation which focused on fleets of self-driving taxis. I presented detailed cost calculations for a fleet of urban autonomous vehicles. The data shows that driverless mobility services could halve the costs per person-kilometer compared to car-ownership. One of the key sources of savings is professional life-cycle management for all vehicle components which will greatly increase the economic life of the cars and thereby decrease the capital cost per kilometer traveled.