Can entrepreneurs help solve the problem of car-crowded cities?

Fans of American comedy documentary filmmaker John Wilson may have seen his “How To” guide to finding a parking space in New York City. The message of Wilson’s comic odyssey was clear. Buy a car in town and you doom yourself to a world of pain, with a life reduced to a continual struggle to find places to park your vehicle safely. 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 it’s not just a problem for car owners. Large tracts of land in cities have been given over to parking spaces. Locations that can be used to create green spaces or accommodate new homes have been reserved for vehicles. Added to this are the pollution problems caused by millions of vehicles traveling at low speeds. This will be less of a problem when electric vehicles become dominant, but then you will have the new challenge of finding places to house all the necessary charging points. So how do we reduce the number of cars on the roads while keeping us all moving.

Now cities tend to have good public transport and many city dwellers have made a conscious decision not to drive, especially here in the UK where I am based. In 2020, an analysis by the DVLA – Britain’s Vehicle Licensing Authority – found that levels of city car ownership were falling, it wasn’t just London. The boroughs of Oxford, Brighton, Newcastle and Birmingham have all seen a drop in the number of people owning and driving cars. It’s a trend that has been accelerated to some extent by local authorities allowing personal transport solutions such as scooters and bicycles while increasing parking fees.

Personal transport

But here’s the thing. There will be times when many of us will need to use cars. There are journeys where buses, trams, trains or scooters just don’t cut the mustard. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to own them.

I spoke with two British entrepreneurs offering different solutions to tame the negative impact of cars on the urban environment.

Michael Mangion is the founder of Trivlee. The company’s solution to the urban 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. Once the session is over, the remote driver “teleports” and takes the car to the next task.

As Mangion recalls, Trilvee’s inspiration 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 commute to work and she was doing it by herself in a 1.6 ton car,” he says.

Mangion’s goal was therefore to make the use of vehicles more efficient. The company cites figures suggesting the average car sits idle for 11.4 years out of a 12-year life cycle. At the same time, many journeys are single occupant. Seeing a business opportunity, Mangion – a software engineer by trade – began work on a system that would reduce the number of vehicles on the roads while ensuring that city dwellers could access cars when needed.

Alex Kendall, CEO and co-founder of Wayve took a different approach. Rather than developing a service, his company is developing the hardware and software that could accelerate the arrival of self-driving, driverless cars and vans. Essentially, manufacturer-independent technology can be adapted and a combination of computer vision and AI allows them to navigate traffic safely. Importantly, thanks to machine learning, the system can be trained to drive on the roads in a remarkably short period of time.

The company has been testing on public roads since 2018 and has signed business partnerships with delivery companies Asda, Ocado and DSP to test their fleets. To fund the commercial deployment 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 UK cities.

Urban green spaces

So what are the benefits? Well, security is important. Once the technology is perfected, self-driving vehicles shouldn’t make the mistakes that drivers are prone to. But like Mangion, Kendall also sees an opportunity to create greener, friendlier cities. “Autonomous vehicles will allow us to reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” he says. For example, autonomy will be a catalyst for public transport services.

This is clearly a hot area for the automotive industry in general. But is it a space for entrepreneurs? After all, the big names in the automotive industry are all investing in autonomous systems. So is it possible for a startup to gain market share?

Kendall says Wayve’s advantage is its expert research team and breakthrough AI and camera technology.

But entrepreneurs face the challenge of scaling up their technology. In the immediate future, Wayve’s delivery service partnerships will allow the company to bring its technology to the streets.

Trilvee’s approach has been to talk to local authorities who might be interested in accommodation by introducing an on-demand car service. Mangion says he has received two letters of intent (letters of intent to date, although the boards in question cannot be named.

The plan is to focus on relatively small towns. As demand is limited by population, an efficient service can be deployed with fewer vehicles. Mangion stresses that the goal is to quickly move beyond the testing stage. “We don’t want to do another trial. We have to go to the market,” he said. To date, funding from angels, friends and family has been secured, but he is seeking more investment.

Mangion points out that Trilvee’s vehicles will complement other forms of urban transportation, such as e-scooters and e-bikes for hire. “We want to interact with them,” he says. “They tend to be last mile options. They don’t go any further. We can bring in people from the suburbs.

Kendall agrees that a range of solutions are needed in the smart cities of the future. “Cities must have a broad vision of transport. We need it all – walking, cycling, public transport, micromobility, private transport. Last mile and first mile solutions.

All of these provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, but regulatory support from local and national governments is crucial. Kendall a green light from the national government will be crucial for the development of the autonomous vehicle market. “Our request to the government is that it introduces the legislation quickly as it has promised,” he said.

Change is coming to the way we move around cities and it will take many forms, with electric, self-driving and remotely driven cars being part of a much bigger whole. How quickly this 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.

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