Motional Sees AV Deliveries Balancing Robotaxi Service
Phil Vidal shares company's contrarian approach to autonomous delivery, details of Uber Eats partnership
As we catch up with the leaders in the autonomous delivery space, it’s worth noting that our conversations thus far have all been with folks working at the sidewalk scale. For a sense of comparison, let’s check in with Motional, the AV upstart backed by Hyundai and Aptiv that’s partnered with Uber Eats. While most PDD-scaled delivery startups think their small size and defined operating environment give them a leg up, Motional counters that by being able to balance demand for both ridehail and delivery, they’re the ones with a competitive edge. Given that this group (under a variety of names) has been honing its craft for a decade now, it’s worth giving their argument some credence. Phil Vidal, Motional’s Senior Director of Business Development, shares more below.
Jonah Bliss: Let’s start with some background; can you tell us a bit about Motional’s founding story, and how the group came together?
Phil Vidal: Motional was formed in 2020 as an autonomous driving joint venture between Hyundai Motor Group and Aptiv. That said, our history goes back much farther to two of the AV industry’s first start-ups; nuTonomy, founded out of MIT in 2013, and Ottomatika, founded out of Carnegie Mellon in 2013. Both nuTonomy and Ottomatika were acquired by Aptiv and later spun out into Motional through the joint venture. So, the Motional team, in all its previous forms, has been part of the driverless industry for over a decade.
JB: Motional, and its predecessor companies, initially got its start focused on “robotaxis,” or autonomous passenger transportation. How did the additional focus on delivery develop?
PV: You’re correct, we started with robotaxis and it remains a core focus of our business. We firmly believe that providing a safer mobility option and a convenient alternative to personal vehicles is the most significant opportunity in the realm of driverless technology. We’ve been operating a public robotaxi service in Las Vegas in partnership with Lyft since 2018. We’ve conducted over 130,000 rides and the experience has been very well received by Lyft passengers. In 2022, we also began offering rides in partnership with Uber in Las Vegas.
In terms of delivery, it began with a partnership we established with Uber in 2021. In May 2022, we successfully launched our first delivery service on the Uber Eats app in Santa Monica.
Motional’s decision to enter the last mile delivery market as our second vertical was for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was complementary to our existing robotaxi technology. Meaning, we were able to launch a service faster by leveraging our core robotaxi technology. In fact, we went from concept to pilot with Uber in a matter of months. This pilot program provided valuable insights that enabled us to refine and enhance the merchant and end-customer experience as necessary.
Ultimately, we envision a future where our vehicles can serve a dual-purpose, conducting both rides and deliveries throughout the day in response to demand. We understand that ride-hail and delivery have their own unique demand patterns, and by combining both services, we can maximize the utilization of our vehicles. This approach allows us to adapt to fluctuations in demand and ensure maximum efficiency in our operations.
“We are focused on developing a dual-purpose product model, where our existing IONIQ 5 autonomous vehicles can efficiently handle both ride-hailing and delivery services. This allows us to optimize asset utilization and balance demand across both offerings.”
JB: Are there any particularly interesting learnings from your trials with Uber Eats thus far?
PV: Throughout our delivery service with Uber Eats, we've gained some fascinating insights and learnings. One key observation is that there are numerous touchpoints during an autonomous delivery that we take for granted when there is a human courier involved. For example, the merchant has to deliver the order to the AV as opposed to leaving it on a front table, which is a common practice at most restaurants. We've noticed that during busy periods, merchants occasionally forget to perform this step. As a result, we're actively exploring innovative ways to streamline the process to ensure a seamless merchant experience.
This is why real-world experience is so important. We’re able to refine our user experience through real feedback. We’ve followed the same approach with our ride-hail service in Las Vegas. We’ve accumulated five years of customer feedback, which has helped inform everything from how we communicate passenger instructions to the amount of space needed for luggage and bags.
With both our delivery service and our ride-hail service, we have vehicle operators present while we’re going through this learning process. The operators provide added support to the customers as needed. We’re able to iterate during this phase so that when we remove the vehicle operators we’re confident the customer is comfortable interacting with the vehicle autonomously. This is an important part of our roadmap and translates into a smoother experience for the customer.
JB: Many of the other players in the autonomous delivery space use a smaller form factor vehicle that’s meant to travel on sidewalks; others that are also in the on-road space are also exploring the use of vehicles purpose-built just for delivery. Can you speak to Motional’s different approach when it comes to vehicle design?
PV: At Motional, we have a unique approach to vehicle design in the autonomous delivery space. We are focused on developing a dual-purpose product model, where our existing IONIQ 5 autonomous vehicles can efficiently handle both ride-hailing and delivery services. This allows us to optimize asset utilization and balance demand across both offerings. Therefore, we do not currently see the need to develop a purpose-built vehicle specifically for delivery.
JB: As we’ve seen the macro-economic situation change, it’s been harder for some hardware startups to get the additional financing they need to advance their projects. Does Motional’s institutional backing inoculate it from those issues?
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