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Using autonomous vehicles as a sightseeing delivery platform

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While much of the sector's attention is currently on solving autonomous vehicle driving issues and city transit use cases, other industries are beginning to pay attention to how fully autonomous vehicles may impact their operations and long term viability.
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One such industry is local tourism.

Within single-day sightseeing, motor vehicles are primarily used for:

- Airport transfers - going from airport to hotel, normally with luggage

- Hop on Hop off busses - ideal for families as they go attraction to attraction with no need to learn local public transit systems

- Sightseeing transit - e.g. a short jungle walking tour is really a pickup from a hotel in a minibus, go to the jungle, take a walk, then travel back to the hotel. The transit often forms the majority of the cost of delivery of the tour



- Tours - seeing a city from a vehicle

Local sightseeing tour businesses expect to use luxury vehicles for 5 years from new and achieve 15 years use for more robust busses such as used in cities. They also expect to have a resale value after this time.

When you compare this usage expectation to expected timelines for mainstream operation of autonomous vehicles within cities the scale of the problem faced by sightseeing vehicle operators becomes clear. They need to keep buying regular sightseeing vehicles (as that is what is on offer) but with the knowledge that they are not going to get the full usage that they need for commercial viability.

Furthermore, the styles of sightseeing tour that can be delivered autonomously are not the same as the mainstream tours on offer currently. Autonomous vehicles are not just a change in technology leaving the existing tours unaltered but an existential threat to existing operators that requires their full attention.




New experiences

Current tour experiences are tour guide and/or driver lead and tend to be designed for mainstream interest. Primarily this is because a tour has to achieve at least 500 bookings a year for commercial viability (to cover costs of training human tour guides to deliver the tour, to advertise and promote the tour to customers and travel agents).

Digital delivery of experiences (as can be achieved in autonomous vehicles) enables us to design tours with a lower required annual booking total before reaching commercial viability. This introduces a whole new class of tour experience that cannot be commercially delivered today.

For example a tour could be designed taking people to places related to a particular sports team. If it only attracts 50 customers a year, this would still be commercially viable. These new sightseeing experiences will be highly attractive to those with an interest in that sports team, but of little (zero) interest to anyone else.

This will accelerate the shift from mainstream sightseeing (that millennials are rightly rejecting) towards long tail, highly lovable (highly hatable) experiences. A shift that existing sightseeing operators may struggle to handle alongside the shift to autonomous vehicles.




New vehicle sizes

Autonomous shuttles with capacity for 6-8 travellers will be perfect for family sized groups. This is quite different to current tour coaches (for mainstream tours) with capacity for 30-50 people or even minibuses (which are twice the size of shuttles).

As such, experiences will be personalised (either to an individual or to a couple or a family), again a stark change from current generation mainstream tours with little personalisation in service.

This shift in vehicle size will create challenges at top attractions that are already very busy with vehicles dropping off, waiting & picking up. Existing tour coaches may be replaced by fleets of autonomous shuttles, causing significant congestion issues. This is a problem that will need to be addressed by attractions in the future, probably via expensive architectural reconfiguration of car-parking space and welcome areas.

While on the topic of vehicle sizes - for sightseeing - we really need open top if possible. I haven't seen any open top autonomous shuttles yet. Is this because customers may jump out when underway? If so, would like vehicle engineers to take a look at this problem.




New curators

Currently tour companies act as the taste curators within a city, choosing what to visit and how long to stay. Due to the shift to digital delivery of experiences, we can expect influencers (or tastemakers) to be able to create their own routes. i.e. someone interested in craft beer would design a beer tour route.




Travel brands rather than vehicle brands

I expect in a few years time you will be taking a sightseeing experience in an autonomous vehicle that will be branded as booking.com, Expedia, CTrip, AirBnb, Uber, Lyft or TripAdvisor. These brands will take the lead for two reasons:

- Customer relationships - customers trust these big travel brands for their travel and as such these brands know more about these customers. This will help with marketing experiences as well as knowing enough about the customers to deliver a personalised routing.

- Capital - we will require tens of thousands of autonomous shuttles and these leading travel brands have sufficient capital to be able to make that investment.

Potentially some of the leading hotel chain brands may also be full-service travel agencies by the time autonomous vehicles are everywhere. In particular Marriott and Accor both are becoming rapidly digital aware so could be contenders.

I do expect existing sightseeing operators to be part of the overall makeup of the new autonomous vehicle sightseeing market. This is primarily because one asset they all have is well positioned vehicle maintenance yards. Autonomous vehicles used for sightseeing will need regular cleaning to keep them operational and brands entering this market will require expensive land that existing vehicle based sightseeing operators already have.


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Using autonomous vehicles as a sightseeing delivery platform
Modified on Thursday 9th August 2018
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