Safa Alkateb of Autocab launched the session with some thoughts on the opportunity that technological advances could provide. He said that in the UK, about 90 million trips are undertaken every day, of which the taxi trade, broadly defined, accounts for about 2 million.
The vast majority of trips, about 75 million, are undertaken by private car, with most of the rest being accounted for by public transport. Alkateb took the view that many of the “own car” journeys would be “up for grabs” by the trade - which was already in the “trips” business - as technology such as autonomous vehicles developed.
Dave Goldring said Europcar was keen to have a part of the market for total trips but felt that fully autonomous vehicles were probably still some way off, because areas such as questions of liability in the case of an accident still needed to be settled. There was still a long way to go legislatively when it came to settling these “huge open-ended questions”. There would still be drivers for a long time in thinly-populated rural areas especially.
Other changes could come within a shorter timescale, Goldring said, for example, micro-transit networks to connect travellers to other travel possibilities such as the nearest Underground station. It was a question of finding the gaps where services were needed.
Joe Polley felt the case for autonomous vehicles was compelling, and that in the long run, autonomy could lead to improved safety levels by reducing the scope for human error. Business and government had a big appetite for it as well and it would probably signal the end of traditional car ownership.
Alkateb felt it would be some time before autonomy fully kicked in, and that there was likely to be a transition period of perhaps five to ten years, during which there would be mixed fleets of driverless and driven vehicles, rather than a suffer overnight changeover.
Among delegates, 35.5% thought autonomous vehicles would have a positive effect on the private hire trade and 45.6% thought that it would have a negative effect; 19.3% were neutral.
Goldring thought fleets still had a future because they had an existing infrastructure that it was “easier to plug than it is to completely replicate from the ground up”.
Mike Galvin felt that private hire, including the human element, still had a future. Some customers valued interaction with drivers while others were disabled, or might, for example, need help with heavy luggage. There might be fewer drivers but technological change would create new roles as well.
He felt mobility as a service hadn’t so far taken off because there wasn’t much “push” - where someone invents something and everyone wants it - or “pull” - a need from the market being addressed - from the market. In fact, Transport for London was already offering something fairly close to mobility as a service with its integration of up to 20 different forms of transport with a common means of payment that’s fairly integrated - they’re probably not in a hurry to add further services to that list.
Delegates were fairly sceptical about the likely pace of change, with only 9.1% believing that London would be starting to go driverless with taxis by 2020, with 45.5% believing this wouldn’t occur until after 2025 and a further 45.5% saying it wouldn’t happen until after 2030.
Alkateb felt that technological advances wouldn’t put the operators out of business - they could benefit from falling costs as much as anyone else. They one thing they lacked as mainly local businesses was global reach but soft mergers and other technology such as apps that allow global booking could help them address this issue as well. The private hire business was a large business but compared with the new entrants, it is fragmented - technology could allow the operators to “de-fragment” by working together.
Congress chairman Mark Bursa suggested that because of soft mergers and co-operation measures, there were probably fewer actual mergers these days.
On the subject of Mobility as a Service, Alkateb felt that this would mainly become relevant when the price was much lower than could be achieved today - perhaps £400 to £600 per month, which would be impossible without driverless vehicles.
Mike Galvin felt that the current low interest rate environment had given the new entrants access to a lot of cash with which to fuel their activities, but once interest rates rose, “a lot of this nonsense will just fade away”.
Asked whether they intended to run autonomous vehicles once the technology became available, 54.8% said they would, and 22.6% said they wouldn’t, while 22.6% were “don’t knows”.