In the Singapore robo-taxi test, residents can use nuTonomys ride-hailing smartphone app to book a no-cost ride in a nuTonomy self-driving car. The rides will be provided in a Renault Zoe (pictured) or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle configured for autonomous driving.

In the Singapore robo-taxi test, residents can use nuTonomy's ride-hailing smartphone app to book a no-cost ride in a nuTonomy self-driving car. The rides will be provided in a Renault Zoe (pictured) or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle configured for autonomous driving.

Do you recall the vision of the future that was presented in the movie 'Total Recall'? There is a scene with a 'driverless' cab called a Johnny Cab (watch YouTube clip), complete with the physical embodiment of a robot driver at the wheel. It's a scene that sometimes comes to mind when fully autonomous cars are talked about – at least in terms of the idea of the robotic taxi, human driver absent. I was reminded of the Johnny Cab last week when news emerged of a trial in Singapore that is bringing together smartphone ride-hailing with autonomously driven cars. The intention is to have a real-world scheme in place in Singapore in 2018. There is some way  to go before we see how such a scheme will really look, what operational and geographical constraints may apply, how big the autonomous fleet might really be and so on.

Before people say 'this is the future' a little perspective is needed. Public transport is often the most efficient solution for moving large numbers of people around a densely populated urban area and that won't change. Modal splits in transportation vary from place to place for all sorts of reasons. Singapore, a highly economically developed and regulated city state, may be very suitable for 'robo-taxis', other places much less so. And a conventional car that is owned rather than shared is still a very strong proposition for on-demand transport in less densely populated areas that lack the critical mass for easy shared car drop-off and pick-up and where public transport is less available. The Johnny Cab, I mean robo-taxi, hailed via a smartphone app could be part of the solution for 'last mile mobility' though, in cities, after you have stepped off a train or tram into an inter-modal hub. The Singapore trial involves electric vehicles, too, which points to a possible environmental policy element behind them in city centres.

Where would it leave companies like Uber that currently do not have to bear the cost of the vehicle fleet, because that's being born by the drivers? It's an interesting question. Maybe Uber and others like it are part of a transition, at least in terms of urban mobility – the hangover of vehicle ownership and low asset utilisation creating a business opportunity that will eventually be replaced by low-cost driverless fleets (no driver to be paid takes a big chunk of fare cost out). Can fleets of driverless cars that act as effective robo-taxis be created at low-cost? Would that cost – and the associated price to the customer - be lower than the current cost/price that includes an element of driver remuneration?

Also, the size of these autonomous vehicle fleets and associated scale economies is going to be an intriguing issue, alongside the basic economics of what the future traveller is prepared to pay for a mile of transportation in one of these. I expect there are people in Silicon Valley thinking about that. And Detroit, for that matter – I heard Ford's Mark Fields recently state that Ford has a firm eye on that final part of the consumer's transportation spend, the journey itself, that vehicle makers have traditionally been positioned outside of. Viable business models have yet to be constructed, the technology is still being developed (but rapidly); the potential opportunities stretch in different directions. Car companies can be at the heart of it.

And supplier companies are also busy positioning themselves for the wave of advanced connectivity and autonomous drive technology that is on its way. Mobileye and Delphi stepped forward recently to announce their plans to jointly develop a complete SAE Level 4/5 automated driving solution production-ready for 2019. This latest technology partnership is just one of a string of others announced this year in the race to offer fully autonomous cars.

I suspect the successful automotive companies over the next ten years will be the ones who are well positioned for changes in transportation – especially in the urban setting - that are coming. They have to do that and also continue to make profits as manufacturers of motorised vehicles. Motorised vehicles are not disappearing, but they are changing. In the auto business, these are very interesting times.

'nuTonomy' claims world first public trial of 'robo-taxis'

ADAS technology partnerships shift up a gear to make autonomous cars a reality