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Building the Model T for Gen Z

The robotaxis are coming—but first, the industry needs standardization

Before long, the rideshares we summon with our phones may come without drivers. Though that’s not a ride many would accept just yet, a number of companies are nearing launch phase on driverless robotaxi vehicles. Alphabet subsidiary Waymo launched the first limited commercial robotaxi service last December in Phoenix, and existing ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have partnerships and pilot projects in development in various test cities (mostly those with great weather and little traffic).

GM’s self-driving subsidiary, Cruise, has postponed its 2019 launch plans but continues testing in San Francisco using the electric Chevy Bolt. And dozens of other robotaxi projects are in various phases of development, including an ambitious plan by Elon Musk to encourage Tesla owners to allow their idle electric vehicles to “gig away” when idle and join other company-owned vehicles in a robotaxi fleet.

But to achieve a reality in which self-driven vehicles begin to displace their human-driven counterparts in large numbers, standardization is going to have to become a much more prominent part of the picture.  For autonomous rubber to hit the road—and not pedestrians, bikers and scooters--it may be time to agree to some new Transformational Transportation Thinking (needs a cooler name, how about T3?) to help us more quickly achieve the same disruption to the car industry that cars managed when competing with the horse-and-buggy industry just a little over a hundred years ago. 

It was almost 50 years after the invention of the car before Henry Ford designed and built a safe, reliable and affordable Model T. What did it take to finally make Ford’s disruption successful? It required a number of factors that rarely get their due: The standardization of parts, efficient manufacturing, a lot of good public relations, and government involvement (i.e., roads) and regulation (i.e., stop signs).

We need to spend more time talking about where this driverless-car disruption must end, so that it can really begin. What will be required is a regulated urban transportation network dominated by a fleet of autonomous, communicating, identical Model Ts (needs a cooler name, how about just T?).  Let’s focus on what will be necessary regarding the future of T-design, T-manufacture, T-distribution/operation, and T-service.

Let’s further simplify the discussion with the assumption that our T is a fully autonomous, two-passenger electric vehicle designed for urban trips and delivery applications. Just as the original Model T’s design and manufacturing process was driven by the objective to bring car ownership to everyone, the T design and manufacturing process will be driven by the objective to end the need for car ownership for everyone. And that won’t happen until we have a sufficient inventory of Ts to achieve minimum waiting times for robotaxi riders and to achieve the production and operation economies of scale necessary for the robotaxis to achieve the minimum cost per mile.  But as we learned with the Model T, high volume is a great problem to be in a position to solve.

T3 Design: Rather than adding autonomous driving capabilities to expensive existing car platforms, the design of the T requires a much more utilitarian goal based on Design for Affordability (DFA), Design for Automated Assembly (DFAA), and Design for Actually Achieving Ambitions (DFAAA).  T-Tops would consist of a light, aerodynamic, recyclable body and seating (imagine an egg).  T-Bottoms would provide the chassis with sockets for all other vehicle components (imagine a piece of toast, but with wheels and LED lights).  The only interfaces needed between a T-Top and T-Bottom are vents for the air system and the universal T connector for the limited electronics needed for lights and entertainment in the T-Top.

Most importantly, a universal T design specification would enable T manufacturers and component vendors to employ the most state-of-the art, high-volume, fixed-automation manufacturing processes possible. 

T3 Manufacturing:  Henry Ford built his Model T as a “car for the great multitude,” through the assembly of 3,000 parts at 84 work stations using a rope to pull vehicle through stations. Imagine a T design that could reduce that process to 10 standardized components and 10 work stations assembled in a lights-out robotic assembly sphere. Because components and manufacturing processes would be standardized, the list of possible manufacturers could include not only those from the traditional auto industry, but also others from the micromobility world (like the makers of scooters) and possibly the electronics assembly industries. But since super-efficient T manufacturing and selling to robotaxi fleet operators (rather than consumers themselves) would be a tight-margin business, the big names in this transportation-as-commodity industry will more likely be the T fleet operators and not the T manufacturers.  Sorry Mr. Ford, it’s now a service, not a product.

T3 Distribution/Operation: Because the T, as I imagine it, will be a commodity and transportation a public utility, T3 planning would require government/industry partnerships to standardize T distribution and operation (like we already do with cabs, only much better this time around; no ugly medallions). This would result in an Uber/Lyft/Lime/Bird-like set of T fleet managers who privately own, operate and maintain T availability and performance.  As transportation-as-a-service is now the primary source of personal transportation industry revenue, these fleet managers will likely become the new Big-3 vendors in the transportation industry and ultimately become the driving force behind developing new T standards and certifying T manufacturers.

I imagine that “Taking a T” could become the default way we transport ourselves from A to B, and our T-bill will be much smaller than our streaming bill.  A super large nonlinear optimization algorithm (we’ll say it uses AI) will forecast the number of Ts needed and where to position them and work out all the other details. Remember that not only will Ts move people, but they will also make driverless home deliveries of everything we currently bring home by car. Ts will be busy throughout the day and evening (we’ll save T-bus and T-truck and intercity Ts for another day). 

T3 Service: Finally, the T would be fully self-diagnostic for routine maintenance and required servicing during off-peak times. Rather than charging stations, idle Ts would pass through T maintenance hubs (former gas stations) where automated servicing lines clean them, replace spent batteries with charged ones, inspect systems, and return Ts to available status. And of course, when the T finally reached the end of its useful life, it would make one last self-driven trip back to the manufacturer, where 90% of T components would be recycled (and the other 10% can be ground down and used for artificial T-turf).

When and if this vision of T design, manufacture, distribution/operation and service can be realized is, of course, subject to speculation. But there are three factors in favor of its eventuality: The first is the rumor that none of the current micromobility and ride-sharing firms is actually making a profit, which means a new economic model for delivering robotaxi services must emerge. The second factor is that the greatest obstacle to robotaxi deployment will likely be steep regulation restrictions, and regulators will demand far greater vehicle design and operation standardization to ensure safety. And the third factor is what we learned from Mr. Ford and the Model T, that economics always drives innovation. That means we likely won’t break up with our cars until the next generation of Transformational Transportation Thinking and a standardized T-based robotaxi service make us a better offer.

Richard Kilgore is a professor of management and business administration at Maryville University.

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