Self-driving vehicles and the technology behind them continues to be much in the news, with on-going speculation as to when it is going to be available in on-road vehicles. The question of when “it” is going to happen, depends on what “it” is, to paraphrase a famous quote from another era, and is certainly a critical question, given a definition of vehicle autonomy.

To make a point of what I believe is going to be an evolutionary process with regard to introducing self-driving technology, a good number of on-road vehicle models in today’s market incorporate passive safety features such as Forward Collision Warning (FCW) and Lane Departure Warning (LDW). Taking “it” a step further, some models have active, self-activating features, such as Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Lane Keeping Assist (LKA), and other autonomous features, which are initiated without any driver intervention or involvement. These are the building blocks of fully autonomous vehicles.

These passive and active systems, collectively called Advanced Driver Assistant Systems (ADAS), will, in an evolutionary, model year-by-model year process, become standard features in most, if not all on-road vehicles. Market competition, as well as government regulation, will drive this progressive development. (An excellent overview of self-driving technology can be found on Mobileye’s website under the “Technology” tab.)

Small vehicle niche in the universe of self-driving vehicles

While the introduction of ADAS technology will be an on-going aspect of the on-road vehicle market, it is still a leap to the fully automated vehicle, given safety concerns and possibly cost. I would like to suggest that commercial introduction of fully self-driving vehicles will take place on private and restricted public properties and will mark a major opportunity for manufacturers of small, task-oriented vehicles.

There are already companies much involved in autonomous mobility systems on restricted properties or venues. One example is the California based company, Ridecell, that is developing self-driving, low-speed vehicles for use on private property such as colleges, theme parks, business parks, retirement communities, and basically any campus-like setting that can set its own traffic rules. Ridecell recently acquired autonomous shuttle system provider, Auro Robotics. Auro implemented a highly successful demonstration project of its autonomous shuttle system on the campus of Santa Clara University in California.

Self-driving shuttles on college campuses

Auro’s battery-electric shuttle has a top speed of 25 mph and a 90-mile range. Auro currently builds three different configurations to suit various transportation needs and is using Polaris GEM vehicles as their base vehicle platform. They provide 2, 6 or 12 seat shuttles depending on customer need. In the development of an overall fleet system, Ridecell will be providing fleet-management software and services, which they already supply to BMW’s and Volkswagen’s car sharing services.

College campuses in particular are already a major market for GEM. Development of the manufacturer, technology provider, and dealer relationships is yet to be fully worked out, but will be coming as the market expands. It is likely that Ridecell, Polaris corporate and local GEM dealers will partner in the production and marketing self-driving vehicles and systems.

The partnership would appear to be a win-win for all three entities: Ridecell could significantly expand their distribution and service channel and enhance their marketing efforts; Polaris could sell more GEMs without alienating their dealer base; and at the same time establish the GEM brand in the self-driving space. GEM dealers could provide a value-added, next generation product to their customers while adding a differentiating and potentially higher margin product to their vehicle lineup. As these relationships develop, it could well set a pattern for other manufacturers and their dealer networks.

From the college campus to the gated community

If GEM is well-positioned for campus market, traditional golf car manufacturers are certainly well-positioned for the gated community market. A Ridecell/Auro-type product would more likely be marketed to the organization operating the community rather than individual owners, since it would be a shuttle service shared by the community. Ridecell/Auro have the technology and GEM has the appropriate product at the moment, so the combination of what the three bring to the table could well disrupt the edge that golf car manufacturers currently have in the gated/planned community segment.

Golf car manufacturers have been peeling away from their traditional golf markets over the years and have been slowly latching onto the utility and off-road segments to complement their product lines and extend their markets. While clearly necessary–as Small Vehicle Resource has been pointing out and detailing with market data in their major industry reports—self-driving technology, with all its challenges in product and dealer network development, will require creative strategies, organizational agility, and focused teamwork, characteristics heretofore not typical descriptors of the industry.

From niche to mass market

Small vehicles in a mass market, rivaling the on-road market? Well, of course it’s down the road a bit, if you’ll pardon the expression, but the watchword is “urban mobility”—subject for another column, as I’m out of space.