Let’s begin with the obvious; privately owned cars are clogging city streets and contributing a lot to pollution, even though they are parked more than 90% of their lifetime, which is kind of absurd. So, we need to reduce the number of cars, they need to get cleaner (read electric in this case), and we need them to be utilized to a much higher degree, preferably shared by many people. This has been widely known for quite a while now, but questions remain – how can all this be achieved while maintaining the same level of accessibility? And how to compete with the convenience and privacy of driving our own vehicle?
According to Haupt, those are key questions behind 4 years of research and development at NEVS, which is finally ready for take-off. Their answer is called PONS, a mobility ecosystem consisting of free-floating electric, autonomous vehicles, specially designed to prioritize user experience through adaptive interior and privacy preferences.
The vehicles, called Sango, have been developed in collaboration with autonomous driving technology company AutoX (based in Silicon Valley, US, and Shenzhen, China). “Their AI Driver is capable of operating highly trafficked environments at up to 70km/h, but they have no vehicle development, meaning that they have so far retrofitted their technology onto ‘normal vehicles’. This makes the user experience compromised”, says Haupt. Behind the scenes of Sango, you’ll find a fleet management system (called Koro) and an app (called Okulo), to enable safe and efficient operation according to customer demands and preferences. Seats can be ordered as a private space, meaning you enter through a private door to a private seat, or shared e.g. if you want to travel with friends or family (or if you just enjoy socializing with other people). The vehicles have up to six seats that can be rearranged according to customer preferences upon booking, each fitted with optional privacy walls.
In 2021, NEVS plans to roll out the PONS ecosystem pilot, consisting of 10 vehicles in Stockholm, Sweden. According to Haupt, the ambition is to start with areas of Stockholm where the traffic density is high, i.e. where the service can impact private car activity the most. The vehicles will be available to anyone and cost slightly more than normal public transport tickets. However, prices will also depend on whether you book the vehicle privately, or if you are willing to pick up others along the way.
But what about permits to operate driverless vehicles in real-life environments?
- You cannot develop an algorithm specifically for a standardized test, it must work in all possible situations, which is why you must deploy the vehicles in real-life. The first step is to apply for permission to operate the vehicles with safety drivers who can intervene if necessary. If this works without interventions for a specific amount of time, you can then seek permission to remove the safety driver, Haupt describes.
And what about those who need cars for e.g. weekly grocery shopping, or going to their summer house outside the city?
- The idea is that those trips will be possible to do with Sango as well. From our research, many people have a private car because they “must” run these kinds of errands, even though they don’t actually want to own a car, says Haupt.
While winding-up our talk, Haupt explains the peculiar (Esperanto) names of the service components:
- PONS (Latin and Esperanto for “bridge”) is part of the brainstem, which is the part of our brain that regulates the autonomic nervous system in our bodies
- Sango means blood cell, and its task is to transport oxygen to all parts of our body
- Koro refers to the heart, which pumps (read operates) the blood cells around our body
- Okulo for eyes, which monitor everything.
It’s nice to see an AV concept like this being developed (and soon hopefully realized) which is designed from scratch for its purpose, and a with high focus on user experience. Furthermore, the fact that a vehicle manufacturer like NEVS will also be the ride-hailing operator is something I have not seen before. We’ve seen a lot of different concepts being developed and AV tests being performed around the globe during recent years, but many still think these kinds of services are quite far from fully driverless commercial operations in any environment. Waymos’ commercial service in the Phoenix area is arguably the most successful so far. It will be interesting to follow the results of this effort from NEVS and AutoX, of course in terms of AV functionality, but also its long term impact on private car ownership and user satisfaction.
Written by Hampus Alfredsson, RISE.