Fans of American documentary comic John Wilson may have seen his “How To” guide to finding a parking spot in New York City. The message of Wilson’s comic odyssey was clear. Buy a car in the city and you’re condemning yourself to a world of pain, with life reduced to a constant struggle to find places to safely park your vehicle. Over time it will become an obsession. I think we’ve all been there. And whether you’re talking about London, Paris or Mumbai, it’s pretty much the same wherever you go.
But this is not only a problem for car owners. Large areas of land in cities have been given over to parking spaces. Sites that could be used to create green spaces or host new homes are set aside for vehicles. Added to this are the pollution problems caused by millions of vehicles moving at low speeds. This will be less of a problem when electric vehicles become dominant, but then you have the new challenge of finding places to host all the necessary charging points. So how can you reduce the number of cars on the road while keeping us all moving.
Now, cities tend to have good public transport and many city dwellers have made conscious decisions not to drive, not least here in the UK where I’m based. In 2020, an analysis by the DVLA – Britain’s vehicle licensing authority – found that urban car ownership levels were falling, and it wasn’t just London. Boroughs in Oxford, Brighton, Newcastle and Birmingham had all seen a fall in the number of people owning and driving cars. It’s a trend that has been accelerated to some extent by local authorities licensing personal transport solutions such as scooters and bicycles while raising parking charges.
But here’s the thing. There will be times when many of us will need to use cars. There are journeys when buses, trams, trains or scooters just won’t cut the mustard. But that doesn’t mean we have to own them.
I spoke to two British entrepreneurs who offer different solutions aimed at mitigating the negative impact of cars on the urban environment.
Michael Mangion is the founder of Trivlee, the company’s solution to the city’s transportation problem is an on-demand vehicle service. Customers who need a car will use an app to place an order. The vehicle will then be driven remotely to the designated location. The customer then takes control of the car. After the session is over, the remote driver “teleports” back and drives the car to the next job.
As Mangion recalls, the inspiration for Trilvee was, at least in part, his wife’s experience when the couple lived in the Scottish city of Dundee. “My wife had a 100-mile drive to work and she was doing it herself in a 1.6-tonne car,” he says.
So Mangion’s goal was to make the use of vehicles more efficient. The company cites figures that suggest the average car sits unused for 11.4 years out of a 12-year life cycle. At the same time, many trips are with a resident. Seeing a business opportunity, Mangion – a software engineer by trade – began working on a system that would reduce the number of vehicles on the road while also ensuring that city residents could access the cars when required.
Alex Kendall, CEO and co-founder of Wayve has taken a different approach. Rather than developing a service, his company is developing the hardware and software that could accelerate the arrival of driverless, autonomous cars and vans. Basically, manufacturer agnostic technology can be deployed and a combination of computer vision and AI enables them to navigate traffic safely. Importantly, thanks to machine learning, the system can be trained to drive on the road in an extremely short period of time.
The company has been testing on public roads since 2018 and has signed commercial partnerships with delivery companies Asda, Ocado and DSP to conduct trials on their fleets. To fund the commercial launch of the system, Wayve has just raised $200 million in Series B funding. Its goal as an organization is to see its technology used in 100 British cities.
Green Urban Spaces
So what are the benefits? Well, safety is important. Once the technology is perfected, autonomous vehicles should not make the mistakes that drivers are prone to. But like Mangion, Kendall also sees an opportunity to create greener, more people-friendly cities. “Autonomous vehicles will allow us to reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” he says. For example, autonomy will be an opportunity for travel hail services.
This is definitely a hot area for the automotive industry in general. But is it a space for entrepreneurs? After all, big names in the car industry are pouring money into autonomous systems. So is it possible for a startup to gain market share?
Kendall says Wayve’s edge is its team of research experts and a revolutionary AI and camera technology.
But entrepreneurs face the challenge of growing their technology. In the near future, Wayve’s delivery service partnerships will enable the company to take its technology to the streets.
Trilvee’s approach has been to talk to local authorities who might be interested in waiting to introduce an on-demand car service. Mangion says he has received two LOIs (letters of intent) to date, although the councils in question cannot be named.
The plan is to focus on relatively small towns. With limited demand from the population, an effective service can be opened with fewer vehicles. Mangion emphasizes that they intend to move quickly beyond the testing phase. “We don’t want to do another test. We have to go to the market”, he says. To date, angel, friends and family funding has been secured, but he is looking for more investment.
Mangion points out that Trilvee vehicles will complement other forms of urban transportation, such as e-Scooters and eBikes for rent. “We want to interact with them,” he says. “They tend to be last-mile options. They don’t go any further. We can bring people from the suburbs.
Kendall agrees that a variety of solutions are required in the smart cities of the future. “Cities must have a broad view of transport. We need everything – walking, cycling, hiking, micromobility, private transport. Solutions for the last mile and the first mile.”
All of these offer opportunities for entrepreneurs, but regulatory support from local and national governments is essential. Kendall a green light from the national government will be crucial for the development of the autonomous vehicle market. “Our demand from the government is that they bring the legislation quickly as they promised,” he says.
Change is coming to the way we move around cities, and it will take many forms, with electric, autonomous and remote-controlled cars being part of a much bigger mix. How soon it comes is another question. Much of the technology is already in place, the speed of deployment will depend not only on engineering, software and investment, but also on the pace of regulatory support.