Nissan Motor Co. wants to beat its competitors by rolling out the world’s first robotaxi fleet.
Nissan is counting on its collaboration with DeNA, a Japanese mobile gaming and communications giant, to add user-friendly features for riders. The Japanese automaker wants the partnership to lift it ahead of its rivals in vehicle mobility services, with robotaxis being the hot commodity lately with global automakers.
But Nissan acknowledges there are hurdles to clear before its robotaxis become safe and reliable — and a viable alternative to traditional car ownership.
Questions also loom over which business model will prevail — robotaxis or other business models being pursued by ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft.
Another issue looms over the winning technology — what fuel will prevail, petroleum or electricity? Electric vehicles have their advocates promoting advancements in EV drivetrains and longer range lithium ion batteries. For now, gasoline-powered vehicles have been driving the lion’s share of self-driving vehicle test miles.
Nissan is preparing to launch electric robotaxis in the early 2020s — but for now, more real-world testing needs to be done. As Uber and Tesla face government scrutiny over fatal autonomous vehicle collisions, Nissan knows it must prepare for unforeseen and potentially dangerous events.
Unexpected occurrences are being tested, such as road construction or an event filled with cars and pedestrians blocking traffic. Nissan and DeNA’s robotaxi will have support from in-vehicle artificial intelligence and staff working at a control center monitoring the rides. Related: Can Saudi Arabia Afford Its Megaprojects?
Last month in Yokohama, Japan, about 300 people participated in test rides in the Easy Ride robotaxis, which are built on modified Nissan Leafs. Easy Ride taps into Seamless Autonomous Mobility, which was developed by Nissan from NASA technology, for the automaker’s fleet operation system. The system comes with a DeNA-designed smartphone app, where users can hail a taxi by choosing a time slot and where they want to be picked up from a list of preset destinations.
Easy Ride users can view a tablet computer installed inside the car with information on recommended events in the area. Users are also sent discount coupons for restaurants participating in an Easy Ride affiliate program.
Nissan prides itself on being an icon in urban mobility, supporting robotaxis, electric vehicles, and through bringing its NV200 minivan to New York City's "Taxi of Tomorrow." The NYC project has been based on modernizing the taxi experience.
Named the official taxi cab for New York City in 2015, Nissan’s NV200 was thought to be ideal for retiring old taxi sedans. Passengers tap into the extra legroom, USB charging ports, and a sunroof for getting a good look at the city’s skyline.
Robotaxis are a hotspot for automakers, but they're facing a great deal of competition over what transportation mode will become the urban mobility vehicle of the future. There's no guarantee of which technology will win with huge investments being made in bringing autonomous vehicles to taxi's biggest competitors — ride-hailing firms like Uber and Lyft, which are testing out their own autonomous vehicle fleet projects.
Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuzing also believes in autonomous vehicles being central to the future of companies like Didi, Uber, and Lyft. In February, these three companies and car-sharing firm Zipcar signed a statement of principles supporting a mandate that all autonomous vehicles in urban areas should be part of shared fleets operated by their companies in conjunction with government agencies. They believe that self-driving cars should not be personally owned.
There will also be a battle over which fuel source will power the automated vehicles of the future. Electric cars have been made into a symbol of the future, but companies like Waymo have been putting millions of miles on roads in gasoline-powered vehicles.
Some automakers, such as General Motors and Tesla, are committing to bringing electric self-driving vehicles to roads in the next few years. Electric drivetrains are said to be ideal for autonomous vehicles, with the technology being simple to maintain and reliable.
The challenge for electric autonomous vehicles will be providing the amount of drivable miles needed by robotaxis and through shared rides. These fleet vehicles will be on roads for several hundred miles per day, and will need to travel much farther than EVs are capable of in their present capacity.
Since 2009, Waymo’s fleet has self-driven more than five million miles. The miles have been escalating in the past two years with more Waymo vehicles on roads putting on test miles. Most of this has been carried out in gasoline-powered Chrysler Pacifica autonomous minivans.
Over the past year, Waymo also has been been conducting road tests in its self-driving trucks in California and Arizona. The Waymo team has designed software that’s learning to drive heavy-duty diesel trucks taking lessons learned from its self-driving car experience.
Where they be robotaxis, shared Uber rides, or cargo trucks powered by petroleum or battery power, autonomous vehicle technology is expected to be the common denominator in the next 20 to 30 years.
By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com
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