James Norris, Senior Analyst
29 May 2018
29 May 2018
The race for autonomy between vehicle segments: who will win and why?
Much of the recent debate surrounding the automotive industry has focussed on the impending autonomous revolution in a broad sense. However, more specific issues have come out of the general discussion: will bus transport pioneer the paradigm shift to Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) on public roads? And, if so, will this rollout impact the development of autonomous Passenger Vehicles (APVs)?
To answer these questions we must identify the specific synergies between bus transportation and AV technology that are not necessarily applicable to PVs. For example, buses are predominantly used in urban areas where connectivity is more advanced, unlike PVs, which are largely used for travel outside of city centres. This is an important factor as vehicles with access to more connectivity are able to harvest greater amounts of data from their surroundings, enhancing the decision-making capabilities of AVs, to improve road safety and fuel efficiency. The fact that the majority of buses operate in an environment more suitable to AV technology means that there should be a quicker rollout of Autonomous Buses. To have the same impact on the PV segment, connectivity would have to be improved in rural areas.
“will bus transport pioneer the paradigm shift to Autonomous Vehicles on public roads?”
A further consideration is that bus routes are largely predetermined, which means that far fewer scenarios need to be calculated, compared to those for a free-roaming PV that is typically used ad hoc to travel a number of routes to a variety of destinations. In other words, bus transport will, for the most part, be able to operate with less sophisticated software than that required for APVs. This has two major implications: 1) the simplicity of bus transport should mean that there is a more meaningful rollout of Autonomous Buses before PVs; and 2) technology developed for bus transport will not be completely suitable for PV application and will have a limited impact on the development of APVs.
A less obvious aspect of bus transport that lends itself to AV compatibility is the price inelasticity of the vehicle. Buses are the most expensive road vehicle to purchase, but are still vastly cheaper and much easier to implement than other forms of public transport such as a subway system. In addition, increasing bus transport is widely accepted to be the least disruptive way of lowering pollution and congestion within cities, which is why buses tend to be highly subsidised. Buses are therefore able to absorb the cost of technological development and implementation with only a modest impact on sales. APVs, however, will remain less affordable for several more years until technological costs reduce. As with the adoption of hybridisation and electrification, the bus segment should lead the way for on-road AV adoption.
“there can be little doubt that the development and mass adoption of Autonomous Buses will precede a meaningful rollout of APVs”
With all of this in mind, there can be little doubt that the development and mass adoption of Autonomous Buses will precede a meaningful rollout of APVs. But there will inevitably be some resistance, particularly from bus drivers and a portion of commuters, while any major shift is still likely to be a number of years away. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that there is too great a disparity between buses and PVs – in terms of vehicle usage, price and the environment in which they operate – for Autonomous Buses to have any significant influence on the rollout of APVs.