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Second Generation Robot Shuttles Analyzed by IDTechEx

Piloted battery eVTOL cost per passenger vs trip length with four passengers. Source IDTechEx report, “Air Taxis: Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing Aircraft 2021-2041”.

The IDTechEx report, “Robot Shuttles and Autonomous Buses 2020-2040,” predicted second-generation robot shuttles, and here they come - vectored traction and steering, smart windows, robotic fast charging, and solar bodywork, so 10-40% less charging is needed. IDTechEx predicted fit-and-forget supercapacitors and electrical repurposing such as yellow-school-bus mode with interactive microLED or OLED window signage and advertising covering costs. LG has now successfully launched those interactive windows, initially in trains.

Whereas robotaxis are repurposed autonomous cars, robot shuttles are a new form of intensive-use land vehicle. Looking like a tiny railway carriage, they can go in shopping malls and down paths with no need for U turns because they are symmetrical. Cities request that they provide inclusiveness by being usable by the poor and disabled in wheelchairs. Some developers have lost sight of that.   

Newcomer Auve Tech sensibly sees them as last-mile travel from the bus stop as an example. It is developing supercapacitor-powered robot shuttles working with Europe’s leading supercapacitor manufacturer Skeleton Technologies also in Estonia. A never-replace supercapacitor shuttle can be driven 24/7, charging in 11 seconds at bus stops as IDTechEx predicted earlier. Amazon Zoox wisely fits enough battery for non-stop full-day use.

Some charging can come from sun-tracking solar charging stations providing 30% more electricity than static. Desmond Wheatley, chief executive of Envision Solar says, “Our network is rapidly deployed because the businesses or government entities using it do not need to get any permits or incur any construction costs. It is scalable and can serve any fleet while the solar-powered vehicles create no emissions.”

Raghu Das of IDTechEx adds, “We predicted in-wheel motors giving vectored steering and traction for even better maneuverability including sideways docking and coping with slippery conditions. Amazon Zoox shuttle now has four-wheel steering. ProteanDrive on Olli also provides efficiency, space and design freedom. Elaphe has its in-wheel motors being trialed. “

On cue, EasyMile has licensed the Sono Motors lightweight solar bodywork – polycarbonate sandwiching single-crystal silicon. Netherlands TNO studies options predicting 40% of traction power for cars in Mediterranean countries. Shuttles, with all that window, will welcome better photovoltaic glass and improved solar film such as TNO copper indium gallium diselenide or Sharp’s 3-5 compound film with 50% more electricity per unit area. TNO calculate 3-4 years payback for today’s single-crystal silicon on vehicles even before valuing reduced downtime.  See IDTechEx report, “Solar Vehicles 2021-2041 2nd Edition”.

Some mistakes are being made. 8 person Auve and 4 person Zoox have suboptimally small shuttles, though AUVE will accept a wheelchair. For repurposing and fast payback, you need large sliding doors and around 20 person capacity, some standing. Auve and Zoox claim highway speeds with no evidence of appropriate crumple zones. Auve is trying fuel cells, which, with chronic inefficiency, are more a way of getting grants than sales. The Toyota Woven City is intended for the base of Mount Fuji using its e-Palette robot shuttles. However, in 2021, Toyota shows little progress and foolishly briefs against battery electric vehicles. Toyota were thought leaders in how the shuttles will repurpose as mobile libraries, parcel delivery, offices, utility vehicles, fast-food cafes. There needs to be more focus on rapid electric repurposing and researching what repurposing is viable. Meanwhile, most smart cities promise to ban cars and have large plazas with no conventional vehicles, no sidewalks, so the passenger use of smart shuttles is clear. 

International cooperation is now the name of the game, followed by global deployment when the toughest challenge – fully autonomous operation that is legal, acceptable, safe and insured - arrives. Latest entrant Auve has partners in the USA, Germany and Finland. Auve Tech grew out of a cooperation project with Tallinn University of Technology from 2017. Its first radio-controlled vehicle operation in Tallinn’s Ülemiste City was a success. A project in Lamia, Greece, finished at the end of 2020.

Battery air taxis are a more glamorous idea appraised in IDTechEx report, “Air Taxis: Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing Aircraft 2021-2041”. Faster but unlikely to beat robot shuttles on cost, current projections being at least double. When working perfectly, these currently last only one hour and combined with the slow flight speed of some wingless multicopter air taxis designs, current batteries severely limit air taxi aircraft operational range. The report finds them to be more complementary than competition, both awaiting acceptable, affordable robotics.

For more information and the full portfolio of research available from IDTechEx please visit  www.IDTechEx.com/Research