• Robotaxi
  • Transportation Effectiveness
  • Smart Transportation Program

Are We Destined to Ride Around In Robotaxi Boxes?

Sam Abuelsamid
Feb 19, 2021

Guidehouse Insights City

One of the more frequently asked questions I’ve fielded from reporters recently is why do all robotaxi concepts look like toasters on wheels? Vehicles such as the Cruise Origin, Zoox robotaxi, Local Motors’ Olli, and numerous others all have similar design aesthetics. Take a box with sliding doors on each side, add a battery underneath with a wheel at each corner, and sprinkle a generous helping of lidar, radar, and camera sensors. The late Clayton Christensen articulated the concept of products’ jobs to be done, and that is the driving force behind these vehicles. 

Car vs. Robotaxi Jobs to Be Done

Every product has jobs to do. For a car, those jobs include providing the ability to get from one place to another. But that is not the only task. For an individual, buying a vehicle is also an expression of who they are and what they like. The shape and color and sound of a vehicle broadcasts to the world something about the driver’s tastes. It may also be a place to store your stuff. How many times have you looked in the trunk or back seat of a car and found all manner of detritus?

Now consider the robotaxi. With the shift to shared, automated vehicles, some of the jobs to be done—particularly the priorities—must shift and the vehicle actually has to do jobs for multiple stakeholders. Personal transportation is clearly the most important job. But if you don’t own the vehicle, do you really care what it looks like? Does the color matter? Probably not. And you won’t be leaving a blanket or flares in the trunk for an emergency situation.

Robotaxi Stakeholders Need Different Jobs Done

The robotaxi rider probably will care about being able to get in and out of the vehicle quickly and having a safe, quick trip. The rider will likely want some room to stretch out and not have their knees jammed into the seat back ahead of them. For operators, robotaxi jobs include keeping dwell time at the curb to a minimum with passengers being collected and dropped off quickly so that the vehicle can pick up the next passenger. The utilization of the vehicle should be maximized for the best economics. 

For the city where the robotaxi operates, reducing traffic congestion is a job to be done. A robotaxi sitting at the curb while passengers get in and out may be blocking other traffic. Traditional large vehicles, such as SUVs, with few passengers have a large footprint on the road. The smaller the vehicle, say, the size of a robotaxi, the more vehicles that can safely fit into a given amount of road infrastructure. 

Traveling Toaster Gets the Job Done

When all of these stakeholders’ jobs to be done are combined, they actually align nicely. It turns out that an electrically powered box with open center, carriage-style seating provides better room than a traditional car. This arrangement provides the maximum usable interior volume within the smallest physical footprint. 

The sliding doors allow for safe and easy ingress and egress. And an added ramp can readily accommodate wheelchairs. For the riders, the interior user experience is more important than the way the body is shaped, so comfortable seats with power ports and possibly entertainment screens meet job requirements. For the fleet operator, this layout is also easier to clean, an important consideration when dozens or hundreds of passengers are cycling through. 

We’re still a number of years away from robotaxi services hitting any significant scale on a global level. But when it does happen, it seems we will indeed be destined to ride around in boxes.