Robot shuttles are, in the words of Robotics and Automation News, “upright, boxy, 8-20 person vehicles that are symmetrical so they never do a U-turn.” They are quiet, zero-emission, and typically do not surpass the speed range of 50 to 60 kmph. This opens them up to a wide variety of uses. “They can go indoors and over piazzas and roads and are able to perform many different tasks even in one day,” explains the specialist news website. In particular, they are expected to become widely used in urban areas where space is minimal, public transportation is spotty, and the desire to own personal vehicles is decreasing. In a decade or so, it’s expected that self-driving shuttles could replace certain aspects of public transportation and replace other usually underutilized vehicles like school buses.
The potential of the industry has led to glittering projections of its future. A new report from IDTechEx, "Electric, Hybrid and Fuel Cell Buses 2021-2040,” predicts that the market could grow exponentially over the next two decades to reach a massive valuation of $18 billion.
It’s a big figure, but there’s a lot of evidence to back it up.
First is the proven popularity of self-driving cars. Then, there’s the fact that numerous industry titans have already rushed to the table to grab a piece of the pie. According to TechCrunch, as of 2019, there were more than 1,400 self-driving vehicles being tested by over 80 companies across 36 states — and that’s just within the bounds of the United States. Among the big-names involved in these efforts: General Motors, Google, Toyota, Honda, Tesla, and more. Robot shuttles have garnered similar enthusiasm, according to the report, currently being trialed in 20 countries.
“Their trials explore many possible applications,” explains the report, “from empowering the poor and disabled, to viably filling in gaps in the transportation network and replacing very underutilized vehicles such as school buses and private cars, reducing congestion and cost.” Robot shuttles specifically have earned the interest — and investment — of equally important industry moguls, such as Toyota and Baidu, as well as enthusiastic startups looking to innovate their way into the momentum.
Key players identified in the report include Navya, a six-year-old French company that accumulated $22 million in revenues in 2018. Navya launched its Autonom Shuttle in 2015, designed for low-speed environments with high frequencies of travel. However, the company is looking to build autonomous shuttles with a roughly $300,000 price tag to be used around municipalities, campuses, and large corporate parks. Another competitor, also hailing from France, is EasyMile, which licenses in-house autonomous driving software to other companies and has already sold over 100 units of its EZ10 no-steering-wheel vehicle. Chinese manufacturers Baidu and Yutong, as well as Netherlands-based 2getthere, are also working on their own self-driving shuttles.
The reason for the interest, as touched upon above, is relatively simple. In addition to the wide-ranging applications and genuine demand for a new vehicular solution to a slew of worsening problems, autonomous shuttles address another key — and increasingly discussed issue: climate change. According to the 2020 State of Global Air Report, air pollution is now the world’s fourth deadliest killer. In 2019, approximately 4.5 million deaths were sourced to outdoor air pollution. Furthermore, around 90% of the global population lives in areas that do not meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) clean air guidelines. Fuel-powered cars are a major contributor.
“Since even ‘zero-emission’ vehicles emit these particles from their tires, the message is now fewer, not just cleaner vehicles,” says a news release published in tandem with the IDTechEx report. “Multipurpose robot shuttles come to the rescue.”
However, all the excitement will have to wait as it’s projected that robot vehicles won’t be used in a large quantity until at least 2030. There is still a lot of testing to be done before these vehicles are unleashed upon the world, but it’s expected they’ll transform it when they are.
About the Author
Jemima is a journalist who enjoys reporting on business, particularly small business and entrepreneurship.