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It's Showtime For Self-Driving Shuttles

Source: Automotive News

Three German suppliers are developing versatile people-mover shuttles that could lead to large-scale use of commercial self-driving fleets.

Robert Bosch, Continental and ZF Friedrichshafen showcased city shuttles that transport travelers on "the first or last mile" of their trips.

And at least one of these tall, boxy vehicles — some of which can carry up to 15 passengers — could someday double as a delivery van for fleet operators such as Amazon, the Postal Service and FedEx.

In theory, these vehicles would remain in continuous operation to amortize the hefty cost of their sensors, computers and upkeep, said Michael Hankel, a ZF board member.

"There is huge interest among our customers and huge interest in the business case," Hankel said. "These vehicles can be driving 24 hours a day."

The three suppliers showcased their concepts this month at CES in Las Vegas:


  • ZF displayed a shuttle called e.Go Mover, which transports up to 15 people. Transdev, a French company, plans to introduce it as a people mover in 2020. ZF also displayed the Innovation Van, which would deliver packages. ZF and Deutsche Post DHL — Germany's largest mail service — are developing a self-driving delivery truck.
  • Continental unveiled its Cube shuttle with robotic dogs that carry packages from the vehicle to a customer's doorstep. Continental owns a stake in ride-hailing service EasyMile, which launched a Cube-like self-driving shuttle in France.
  • Bosch introduced the IoT shuttle concept, which seats four. The company has not shared plans for commercial use, but it cites a forecast by consultancy Roland Berger that 2.5 million ride-sharing shuttles will be on the road worldwide by 2025.

Bosch intends to remain a supplier and not become a vehicle maker, the company makes clear. But Bosch has been evolving to do more development work for customers, including providing entire powertrain plans for automaker startups, such as the Chinese venture Byton.

Other suppliers may seek a niche in the market. Magna International supplies sensors and other components to May Mobility, an Ann Arbor, Mich., startup that has launched an autonomous shuttle service in Detroit.

Likewise, Schaeffler Group of Germany is working with customers on self-driving shuttle concepts, executives said last week during the Detroit auto show. Like Bosch, Continental and ZF, Schaeffler's first priority is to remain a supplier, developing components and software for customers.

But if automakers decide not to move ahead, Schaeffler potentially could. "Never say never," said Matthias Zink, CEO of Schaeffler Automotive OEM. "For the future, we'll see."

While the industry buzzed last week over advances — and challenges — in bringing autonomous passenger vehicles to market, these roboshuttle concepts suggest a growing recognition that people movers and delivery vans could be a more cost-effective field for fully autonomous vehicles.

Vehicles that can operate as people movers or delivery trucks may have the best business case.

Last year, Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled the e-Palette concept, a multipurpose self-driving shuttle. Mazda, Amazon, Pizza Hut and Uber are partnering with Toyota to explore possible uses.

And in October, General Motors and Honda Motor Co. said they will work with GM's Cruise unit to develop an autonomous vehicle that would serve "a wide variety of use cases."

While each supplier is developing its own technology, they are pursuing similar deployment strategies. Each fleet would be serviced by fleet owners, used by trained employees and operated within geofenced areas.

"That will be the predominant market for highly automated vehicles for the next five to 10 years — and probably in perpetuity," said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst with Navigant Research. "You know they are going to be serviced on a regular basis, and you don't have to worry where they'll be taken."

Car side

Luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and BMW are introducing vehicles with Level 3 automation that can steer, accelerate and brake themselves on the highway. But the technology is costly, and automakers are still trying to manage a safe transition from automated travel to human driving, Abuelsamid said.

Meanwhile, Waymo, Lyft, Uber and others are testing robotaxis that would transport travelers in selected locations. Fleet operators would save money by eliminating the driver, but these vehicles would be subject to daily fluctuations in ridership.

If those vehicles can also deliver packages, they can generate revenue around the clock.

"You want a multipurpose vehicle that can do a variety of things to cover your costs," Abuelsamid said. "You need to maximize the use of your vehicle."

But delivery van operators must address unresolved issues such as the "last 100 feet" of a package delivery. Once the self-driving van pulls over to the curb, how will it transport the package to the customer's doorstep?

At CES, ZF suggested that a delivery person could hop in and out of its Innovation Van to drop off packages. The van, in turn, would operate in "follow me" mode, moving up the street to keep pace with the delivery person who walks to the next drop-off site.

The dogs

Continental took a stab at automating the last 100 feet of a delivery. At CES, it equipped its Cube shuttle with robotic dogs that could carry packages to their destinations.

"How do you handle curbs, or scooters lying on the sidewalk, or stairs?" asked Jeremy McClain, Continental's director of North American systems and technology. "We used a quadruped robot because it's more versatile than a wheeled robot."

It may be quite a while — if ever — before robotic dogs are practical. But Continental wants to stimulate conversations with fleet operators, McClain said. "Somebody has to be the thought leader. The conversation has started. Let's see where it goes."

Lindsay Chappell contributed to this report.

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