TRANSPORTATION AND LOGISTICS BRIEFING: Daimler and Via launch on-demand shuttles in Europe -- Ride-hailing's impact on urban transportation -- Google improves mapping capabilities

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DAIMLER AND VIA PARTNER FOR ON-DEMAND SHUTTLES IN EUROPE: German auto giant Daimler is partnering with US-based ride-sharing startup Via to launch an on-demand shuttle service in European cities, Bloomberg reports. Daimler will invest $US50 million in the joint venture, and will also invest an undisclosed amount in a new $US200 million funding round for Via.

The joint venture will be based in Amsterdam, with plans to expand to other cities later this year. The on-demand shuttle service will use specially customised Mercedes Vito and V-Class vans to offer rides. Users can order rides through Via’s mobile app, which connects multiple users who are looking for rides in the same direction to share a vehicle. Daimler said the joint venture would be open to licensing agreements with public transportation authorities, allowing the shuttle service to provide an alternative public transit option.

A shared shuttle service could be a valuable addition to Daimler’s growing portfolio of mobility services, including its Car2Go car-sharing service, and its MyTaxi and Moovel mobile apps. Among auto manufacturers, Daimler has been an early adopter of alternative and shared mobility services. It first launched Car2Go back in 2008, and has grown it to become the largest car-sharing service in the world, with more than 2.7 million registered users. The shuttle service could catch on in European cities if it helps alleviate growing concerns around traffic and air pollution in some European locales. Cities like Paris and Madrid have introduced measures to limit the number of vehicles on their roads in response to growing traffic congestion and air quality issues. A shared shuttle service that helps take vehicles off the road would likely find favour with municipal authorities in these cities.

That potential to take cars off the road could give the shuttle service an edge over other mobility services, including Uber. The few studies conducted on the traffic impact of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have yielded conflicting results. One study published earlier this year by transportation analyst Bruce Schaller found that ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have been exacerbating New York City’s traffic gridlock, creating a 3-4% spike in the number of vehicle miles travelled within the city’s limits in 2016. An earlier study by researchers at Texas A&M University examined data from 2004-2014 and found Uber cut traffic congestion when it first entered new markets. As new mobility services grow, city governments will likely keep a closer watch on their impact on traffic congestion, and those with concerns will certainly favour services that are proven to reduce traffic.

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UBER’S AND LYFT’S IMPACT ON URBANITES’ TRANSPORTATION HABITS: Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft aren’t leading urban dwellers to ditch their own cars en masse yet, but they have cut urbanites’ reliance on the cars they already own, according to a new study published by researchers from the University of Michigan, Texas A&M University, and Columbia University. The study examined the transportation habits of 1,200 Austin, Texas residents during May 2016, when both Uber and Lyft briefly pulled out of the city because of the introduction of new ride-hailing regulations.

The study found that 41% of the respondents turned back to using their own vehicles for trips that they had typically used Uber and Lyft for. In comparison, 42% of the respondents turned to other ride-hailing services to replace Uber and Lyft, as a number of local ride-hailing apps sprung up in the weeks following their departure. Only 3% of the respondents used public transit to replace Uber’s and Lyft’s services. Of those who turned back to using their own vehicles more after Uber and Lyft departed, 9% of them had to purchase a new vehicle.

The study hints that the disruption of car ownership — the anticipated decline in car ownership rates brought on by new mobility services and accelerating urbanisation — is already in very early stages. Around 8% of the respondents felt the need to purchase a new vehicle when Uber and Lyft left town. While that’s certainly a small minority, it confirms findings from a Reuters study earlier this year that suggested that a small portion of urbanites already view ride-hailing as an alternative to owning a car. That portion will likely grow significantly once prices for these services decline enough to provide cheaper daily transportation than traditional car ownership. While competition will continue to lower prices for these services, automation through the introduction of self-driving cars will likely cause the steep drop in prices that could drive disruption in car ownership.

GOOGLE DEPLOYS NEW STREET VIEW CAMERAS TO BOOST MAPPING, AI CAPABILITIES: Google Street View, Google’s project that provides online images of real world street corners and addresses, is deploying new cameras that will allow it to collect far better images of the physical world, according to a new WIRED article. Those improved images, combined with new algorithms that the project has developed, will give Google better data to improve its popular Google Maps service. Google could also potentially use them to enhance image recognition capabilities and self-driving systems for its Waymo subsidiary.

Precise mapping systems are a key component of autonomous vehicles, allowing them to safely navigate their surroundings by telling them when to take a turn or where they are on the road in relation to road signs, cross streets, and other physical markers. Google’s Street View project has already taken more than 80 billion photos in 85 countries with its fleet of mapping vehicles equipped with its camera technology. The new cameras will provide far more detailed and accurate information for Google’s mapping database. The project has also created new algorithms that allow it to automatically populate new addresses by scanning and transcribing street names and numbers.

All of the new information captured by the new cameras may help Waymo develop more precise navigation capabilities for its autonomous vehicles. Google would not say if it intends to do so, but the head of Google’s mapping division told WIRED that it collaborates occasionally with the self-driving subsidiary. Higher quality images could help train the image recognition software that helps autonomous vehicles identify objects in their surroundings, including street signs. It could also ease the demands on autonomous vehicles’ computer systems, as they would have highly detailed maps to reference for determining their precise location, rather than relying solely on information processed from their sensors and cameras. Google’s Street View images could prove particularly useful for autonomous navigation in less-developed markets, where its algorithms can help quickly log and identify new roads, addresses, and businesses that spring up. That could prove useful in helping autonomous cars navigate such areas, providing them with more current and accurate information about their surroundings.

In Other News…

  • A team of researchers demonstrated how simple alterations to street signs could potentially confuse the computer systems underpinning self-driving cars. The researchers made small changes to various traffic signs to see how they would alter the way self-driving systems read those signs. In one example, the researchers altered a stop sign with what looks to the naked eye like some natural weathering. The computer system they used for the test then interpreted it as a 45 mph speed limit sign. The test results suggested that small, seemingly mundane changes to street signs, such as graffiti, could lead to dangerous consequences when they make the signs unrecognizable to self-driving cars. However, the researchers were careful to point out that they developed their own neural network for the demonstration, instead of using an existing self-driving car system that is being tested today.
  • Parcel delivery companies are already ramping up hiring efforts ahead of the holiday shopping season, which is expected to deliver record online sales. Courier companies added 3,900 new hires during the month of August, and 7,000 new hires over the past two months combined, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics. Online spending has been trending up, with e-commerce accounting for 8.9% of all US retail sales in Q2 2017, up from 8% in Q2 2016, according to the US Census Bureau. A survey released recently by research firm Fung Global Retail & Technology found that 82% of the respondents plan to purchase gifts online this holiday season. That will likely result in record volume of online orders that parcel carriers will need to deliver in a short period of time, making it critical for them to expand their network capacity to deliver more packages on time.
  • Drones are playing an important role in the recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which devastated large stretches of Texas and Louisiana last week. The FAA granted more than 40 authorizations for drones to handle emergency- and inspection-related tasks in the Houston area during the first six days following the storm. Those authorizations have allowed drones to check railroad tracks for damage, and inspect power lines and oil refineries. Some of the applications for drone use in the Houston area following the storm were authorised within hours, a stark departure from the weeks-long process the FAA normally uses for such authorizations. The important tasks drones are handling during the recovery highlight the significant potential for drones in aid and inspection missions following natural disasters. For example, first responders could use drones to locate and deliver supplies to survivors after a disaster.

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