Can entrepreneurs help solve the problem of cities clogged with cars?

Fans of American comedic documentary maker John Wilson may well 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 the city and you condemn yourself to a world of pain, with life reduced to a constant 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 tracts of land in cities have been given over to parking lots. Places that can be used to create green spaces or host new housing are set aside for vehicles. Add to that the pollution problems caused by millions of vehicles chugging around in low gear. It will be less of a problem when electric vehicles become dominant, but then you have the new 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 UK where I’m based. Back in 2020, an analysis by the DVLA – the UK’s driving licensing authority – found that levels of urban car ownership were falling, and it wasn’t just London. Boroughs of Oxford, Brighton, Newcastle and Birmingham had all seen a decline in the number of people owning and driving cars. It’s a trend that has been accelerated to some extent by local authorities licensing personal transport solutions such as scooters and bicycles at the same time as parking fees increase.

Personal transport

But here’s the thing. There will be times when many of us will need to use a car. 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 have spoken to two British entrepreneurs who offer different solutions to tame the car’s negative impact on the urban environment.

Michael Mangion is the founder of Trivlee. The company’s solution to the urban transport problem is an on-demand vehicle service. Customers who need a car will use an app to order. The vehicle will then be driven remotely to the designated location. The customer then takes control of the car. When the session is 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 lived in the Scottish city of Dundee. “My wife had a 100-mile drive to work, and she did it on her own in a 1.6-tonne car,” he says.

So Mangion’s goal was to make vehicle use more efficient. The company cites figures which suggest that the average car sits unused for 11.4 years out of a 12-year life cycle. At the same time, many trips are for one person. Seeing a business opportunity, Mangion began working on a system that would reduce the number of vehicles on the road while ensuring that city dwellers could access cars when needed.

Alex Kendall, CEO and co-founder of Wayve has taken a different approach. Rather than developing a service, his company is developing hardware and software that could accelerate the arrival of driverless, autonomous cars and vans. Essentially, manufacturer-agnostic technology is customizable, and a combination of computer vision and AI enables them to safely navigate traffic. Importantly, thanks to machine learning, the system can be trained to drive on roads in a remarkably short amount 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 tests on their fleets. To fund the commercial rollout of the system, Wayve has just raised $200 million in Series B funding. The aim as an organization is to see the technology used in 100 UK cities.

Green urban spaces

So what are the benefits? Well, safety is important. Once the technology has been perfected, autonomous vehicles should not make the mistakes that drivers are prone to. But like Mangion, Kendall also sees an opportunity to create greener and more human-friendly cities. “Autonomous vehicles will allow us to reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” he says. For example, autonomy would be an enabler for ride hailing services.

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

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

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

Trilvee’s approach has been to talk to local authorities who might be interested in hosting to introduce a car on demand service. Mangion says he has received two LOIs (letters of intent) to date, although the councils in question cannot be named.

The plan is to focus on relatively small towns. With demand limited by population, an efficient service can be rolled out with fewer vehicles. Mangion emphasizes that aims to move quickly beyond the testing stage. “We don’t want to do a new trial. We have to go to market, he says. To date, angel and friends and family funding has been secured, but he is looking for more investments.

Mangion emphasizes 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 out any further. We can bring people in from the suburbs.

Kendall agrees that a number of solutions are required in the smart cities of the future. – Cities must have a broad view of transport. We need everything – walking, cycling, horse riding, micromobility, private transport. Solutions for the last mile and the first mile.”

All of these provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, but regulatory support from local and national authorities is essential. Kendall a green light from national authorities will be crucial for the development of the autonomous vehicle market. “Our question to the government is that they will bring in the legislation quickly as they promised,” he says.

Change is coming to the way we move around cities, and it will take many forms, with electric, autonomous and remote-controlled cars being part of a much bigger mix. How quickly it comes is another question. Much of the technology is already in place, the speed of rollout will not only depend on engineering, software and investment, but also the pace of regulatory support.

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