Do Robotaxis Really Have Any Hope?

We have dropped a lot of virtual ink on the topic of robotaxis in the past several years. I have to admit that I was once more bullish about them than I am now, even as the technology marches on and new milestones are set. But in all of this time, I feel like one side of the argument hasn’t often been well expressed or thoroughly expressed. Well, it’s more of a “both of these things can’t be true” argument.

In a recent comment thread under one of my articles, the reader “citizenjs” wrote what I’d say is a brilliant comment on this topic. It’s straightforward and fairly simple, but thorough and well explained. And it is simply written in a way that I find it hard to refute. Here’s their comment:

By citizenjs

The way I see it, there’s something of an issue with the proposition that TAAS [Transportation as a Service] will be really, really cheap (some say cheaper than public transit fares) and at the same time will be really, really profitable. If you look at Lyft and Uber, they’re cheaper than traditional taxi services, but they’re nowhere near as cheap as TAAS is projected to be. And neither Lyft or Uber is very profitable (in fact, both have lost money for much of their existence). Now the easy answer is that TAAS would have lower labor expenses, but Lyft and Uber already have pretty low labor expenses, and they’ve also outsourced all responsibility for vehicle purchase, fuel, maintenance, vehicle cleaning, etc. to the same undercompensated “independent contractors” (who in many markets are making very little after all expenses, especially when including vehicle depreciation). And TAAS would benefit from lower vehicle operating costs than current ICE costs, but those still won’t be trivial. So if TAAS is really cheap, where do the profits come from? And if TAAS isn’t really cheap, where will all the extra riders come from?

If TAAS can undercut ride hailing prices (and it seems likely that it could, but again, by how much?), then you would think that more people would choose to use that instead of owning their own vehicles. But on the other hand, TAAS will be competing with personal vehicle ownership that will likely be substantially cheaper than personal vehicle ownership is today (capital, energy, and maintenance costs are all projected to be lower than that of ICE vehicles, although “fueling” might be less convenient for people without charging at home). So the mileage breakpoint at which personal ownership is cheaper than TAAS may not be much different than it is now with ICE ownership vs. ride hailing, and if that’s the case, then TAAS won’t become a dominant choice, except maybe in places like dense cities where car ownership is unusually expensive and inconvenient.

Featured photo: AutoX BYD robotaxi fleet in Shenzhen, courtesy of NVIDIA & AutoX.


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