If you’re reading Autonomous Vehicle Technology magazine, you likely know that a future dominated by fully autonomous vehicles isn’t a sci-fi dream, it’s a concrete inevitability. Money continues to pour in at dizzying valuations, and companies like Waymo, Tesla, and GM Cruise are making steady progress.

But what types of vehicles will dominate the autonomous landscape? And what new technologies, beyond the autonomous tech itself, are needed to make those vehicles possible?

 

Preferences shifting

I’ll never forget the day I got my driver’s license (“Freedom!”), which is why it blows me away to see more and more of my friends’ high-school age kids in or around cities voluntarily choosing to go without them. These kids have been free for years, courtesy of Uber, Byrd, public transportation, and, of course, the reality that they’re already “with” their friends via a perpetual stream of social media apps on their phones. Take a stupid driver’s exam and put up with the nuisance of owning a car? No thanks.

Owning things? It would never cross my music-loving, 13-year-old daughter’s mind to buy an album (What’s an “album?”). She pays a monthly fee and has access to basically all music all the time. With Spotify, Netflix, and Uber, the younger generations are increasingly choosing to pay-for-services rather than buying and owning.

 

Mobility-as-a-service

The shift to mobility-as-a-service coupled with the drift toward autonomous technology has profound implications. The vast majority of an Uber or Lyft ride’s fees go to paying the driver, about 75-80% by most estimates. We’re nearing cost parity in many urban areas today; even with the driver still in the picture, it’s becoming cheaper for many consumers to rely completely on ridesharing.

So what happens when we remove the driver from Uber and Lyft’s cost structure? Ridesharing becomes the default even outside the city limits, and Uber and Lyft become fleet operators.

 

4000 lb. to move 1.1 passengers?

Today’s vehicles are built to cover most of the buyer’s ride needs. For me it’s mostly a daily commute, but once in a while I need to be able to drive my family around, too, so I’m stuck buying a 4000 lb. five-seater. But a fleet operator can build a fleet to match the use cases.

The average hailed ride is 1.1 passengers plus the driver, and autonomous technology will eventually remove the driver. Seventy percent of rides in the U.S. can be handled by a one-person vehicle, 90% by a two-person vehicle.

Imagine you’re building your own fleet, what would you want?

  1. Minimize the cost of buying the vehicles: If 90% of the rides will be covered by a two-person vehicle, wouldn’t you want mostly two-person vehicles that are smaller and less costly to build/purchase?

  2. Maximize efficiency to keep operating costs down: You’re the one on the hook for the cost per mile, so you’ll want your fleet to be highly efficient.

  3. As green as reasonably possible: Riders will have a choice, and all things equal, many will choose the greener company.

  4. Cabin layouts for different use cases: If you’re buying thousands of two-person vehicles in a given city, why not give your customers the option of selecting a vehicle set up for a 1:1 work meeting, napping, or one optimized for watching media?

So fleet operators will primarily want to order smaller, lightweight, efficient vehicles with a simple and flexible interior. Easier said than done, and plenty of OEMs have failed at trying to shrink their designs. The core problem is that the basic architecture of vehicles hasn’t evolved in a hundred years. Even today’s battery-electric vehicles are built on largely the same design and chassis, with a motor in the middle of the vehicle and axles, steering, and suspension components eating up critical cabin space as the vehicle shrinks.

Plus, the smaller and lighter the vehicle becomes, the more the mass of the humans inside become a significant portion of total mass, and the vehicle dynamics suffer. In laymen’s terms, your small Uber rides like a motion-sickness inducing golf cart. Customers will demand a comfortable ride, and motion sickness will be a far greater concern in a fully autonomous future. What’s the first thing everyone does when they get in an airport shuttle and it starts moving? Phones out, heads down. Facing backward in a small autonomous robotaxi, consumers will need technology that ensures a smooth ride while mitigating motion sickness.

 

The solution

The key technology that allows OEMs to sell commuters and fleet operators is an in-wheel motor with an integrated active suspension. An in-wheel motor offers design flexibility, while active suspension provides the only known method to counter the inertial forces that cause motion sickness. Combining these two concepts into one package makes it cost-effective.

Moving the motor inside the wheel means you can maximize cabin space while designing the body for aerodynamic efficiency instead of designing it around a conventional powertrain. This means you can shrink the vehicle’s size and weight while maintaining the safety of larger vehicles, too. And adding integrated active suspension means you can deliver that luxury ride feel, motion-sickness-free, even in a sleek and lightweight vehicle. With an in-wheel motor and active suspension, you can build vehicles that are 10 times as efficient as those on the road today, vehicles tailor-made for the inevitable autonomous future.

Coming soon to a fleet near you….