Fans of U.S. comedic documentary maker John Wilson may well 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 continual 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 just a problem for car owners. Huge swathes of land in cities have been given over to parking spaces. Places that could be used to create green spaces or play host to new homes have been set aside for vehicles. Added to that are the pollution issues caused by millions of vehicles chugging around in low gear. That will be less of a problem when electric vehicles become dominant, but then you have the fresh challenge of finding places to host all the necessary charging points. So how do you 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 conscious decisions not to drive, not least here in the U.K. where I’m based. Back in 2020, an analysis by the DVLA – Britain’s vehicle licensing authority – found urban car ownership levels were falling, It wasn’t just London. Boroughs in Oxford, Brighton, Newcastle and Birmingham had all seen a drop in the number of people owning and driving cars. It’s a trend that has been accelerated to some degree by local authorities licensing personal transport solutions such as scooters and bikes while bumping up 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 simply won’t cut the mustard. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to own them.
I’ve been talking to two British entrepreneurs offering different solutions aimed at taming the negative impact of cars on the urban environment.
Michael Mangion is the founder of Trivlee, The company’s solution to the city transport 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 appointed spot. The customer then takes control of the car. Once the session has finished, the remote driver “teleports” back in and takes the car to the next job.
As Mangion recalls, the inspiration for Trilvee was , at least in part, the experience of his wife when the couple were living in the Scottish city of Dundee. “My wife had a 100 mile drive to work and she was doing that on her own in a 1.6 ton car,” he says.
So Mangion’s aim was to make vehicle usage more efficient. The company cites figures suggesting the average car sits unused 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 working on a system that would reduce the number of vehicles on the roads and while also ensuring that city dwellers could access 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 fast-track the arrival of driverless, autonomous cars and vans. Essentially, manufacturer-agnostic technology can be fitted to and a combination of computer vision and AI enables them to navigate safely in traffic. Importantly, thanks to machine learning, the system can be trained to drive on roads in a remarkably 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 run trials on their fleets. To fund the commercial roll-out 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 has been perfected, autonomous vehicles shouldn’t make the mistakes that drivers are prone to. But like Mangion, Kendall also sees an opportunity to create greener and more people friendly cities. “Autonomous vehicles will allow us to reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” he says. For instance, autonomy will be an enabler for ride hail 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 car industry are all pouring money into autonomous systems. So is it possible for a startup company to win market share?
Kendall says that Wayve’s advantage is its expert research team and a ground-breaking AI and camera technology.
But entrepreneurs do face the challenge of scaling up their technology. In the immediate future, Wayve’s delivery service partnerships will enable the company to get its technology onto the streets.
Trilvee’s approach has been to talk to local authorities who might be interested in hosting in introducing a car on demand service. Mangion says he has received two LOIs (letters of intent to date, although the councils in question can’t be named.
The plan is to focus on relatively small cities. With the demand limited by population, an effective service can be rolled out with fewer vehicles. Mangion stresses that aim to move rapidly beyond the testing stage. “We don’t want to do another trial. We need to go to the market,” he says. To date, angel and friends and family funding has been secured, but he is looking for more investment.
Mangion stresses that Trilvee’s vehicles will complement other forms of urban transport, such as e-Scooters and eBikes for hire. “We want to interact with them,” he says. “They tend to be last mile options. They don’t go further out. We can bring people in from the suburbs.
Kendall agrees that a range of solutions is required in the smart cities of the future. “Cities need to take a broad view of transport. We need everything – walking, cycling, ride hailing, 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 national government will be crucial for the development of the autonomous vehicle market. “Our ask of the government is that they will bring in the legislation quickly as they promised to,” he says.
Change is coming to the way we move around cities and it will take many forms, with electric, autonomous and remotely driven cars being part of a much bigger mix. Just how quickly it comes is another question. Much of the technology is already in place, the speed of the roll out will depend not only on engineering,software and investment but also the pace of regulatory support.