GoCar Tours' bright-yellow two-seaters have been zooming around a handful of popular cities in the United States and Europe for years, including Barcelona and San Diego. The company was founded by Nathan Withrington and Alasdair Clements, and its first GPS-guided tour launched in San Francisco in 2004.
Now, GoCar is preparing to roll out self-driving electric vehicles, with a Las Vegas demonstration tentatively scheduled for March 10.
The deployment combines vehicles from Arcimoto with driverless technology from Faction Technology and GoCars' guided-tour system.
When in full operation, in about six to eight months, the vehicles will "drive" themselves to one of GoCars' partner hotels on the Las Vegas Strip where customers will get in and take over driving for a sightseeing experience guided by a "mobile tour guide."
"It's like having a local on wheels tell you about the city," Withrington said. "You can stop where you want, get out where you want and schedule your time on your own schedule, not a tour bus schedule."
At the end of the experience, the customer exits the vehicle at their hotel and the car "drives" itself back to the GoCar depot.
Withrington said the company is hoping to line up several large hotels on the Las Vegas Strip as partners. It will take six to eight months before the vehicles can "deliver themselves" to the hotels. "There's a whole process where you train the vehicle on its route and then you do a bunch of testing," he explains.
For distribution, GoCar has partnered with re-sellers such as Expedia and Tripadvisor and other in-destination experience providers, where its tours are part of a "destination pass."
Because it's still early days for autonomous vehicles (AVs), it's perhaps not surprising that GoCar Tours has already encountered a bump in the road.
Arcimoto, the vehicle manufacturer, recently halted production, according to a January 17 report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company said it "will require substantial additional funding to resume production" and if it's not available, "we will be required to cease our operations and/or seek bankruptcy protection."
Fortunately for GoCar Tours, Withrington said Arcimoto's survival is not "100% mission critical" for the upcoming Vegas rollout, and he said that GoCar Tours is making sure it has enough parts to support the vehicles for their service lifetime.
"Fortunately, the driver technology itself is vehicle agnostic," Withrington said. "I really hope that Arcimoto finds a financier because they have some great things going on, not just with us."
Falling costs on horizon
Although the market for robotaxis is growing rapidly, it will likely be 15 to 20 years until fully autonomous vehicles are widespread, said Norm Rose, Phocuswright's senior technology and corporate market analyst, in a November 2022 report.
The adoption of robotaxis primarily depends on four things: regulations, technology readiness, business-case attractiveness and customer preference, according to a 2022 McKinsey study.
Consumers need to perceive autonomous vehicles as convenient, safe and affordable, the report stated. McKinsey's analysis showed that the cost per mile for a robotaxi could drop by more than 50% between 2025 and 2030 "as AV technology advances and smarter, more seamless, multimodal mobility ecosystems emerge."
"This disruption isn't here yet -- early robotaxis will cost more than today's driver-based ride-hailing services -- but we expect the difference between the two to disappear quickly," the report stated.
Regarding regulation, Faction Technology took care of licensing GoCar Tours' autonomous vehicles in Nevada, where it's easier to obtain the authorization than in California, according to Withrington. The company is launching in Las Vegas since it is a major tourist destination and close to GoCar's operations in San Diego and San Francisco.
"Being that it is a new location for us, it is a clean slate where we can launch with an all-electric fleet and single vehicle type," Withrington said.
"This makes it much easier for us operationally to learn about the challenges and solve the issues without interrupting our normal flow of business in our existing busy locations."
While in driverless mode, the vehicles employ "human teleoperation." This means that a human operator "can intervene remotely in certain situations where the vehicle highlights that there's a risky environment or something that it doesn't understand," according to Withrington. He said a single teleoperator can operate multiple vehicles, and the fact that the Las Vegas Strip is long and straight makes it easier for self-driving vehicles to drive themselves to and from different hotels.
"We're not trying to win any races. It's just, 'Stay in your lane, stay safe, stay slow and deliver yourself to the destination.'"
Building consumer trust
Autonomous vehicles are "increasingly inevitable," said Alex Bainbridge, CEO and chief technology officer of Autoura, in a 2022 paper.
But Bainbridge said autonomous vehicles need to be trained for individual city environments and weather, which he called "time-consuming but necessary and important work."
"Mobility platforms need to complete these developments while building trust with consumers," he said.
Autoura aims to take tourists to a sequence of destinations. A digital or human hotel concierge could suggest dinner and a show, for example, and the AV would pick them up at the hotel, then again at the restaurant, then finally at the theater. Autoura makes a commission from its supplier partners.
"A hotel chain can design routes starting from their own hotels and operate them to their guests in their own brand," Bainbridge said.
Autoura is testing its platform in four U.S. cities -- Austin, Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Francisco -- and is planning an official launch for March. Cities such as San Francisco only permit self-driving vehicles to be on the roads overnight, therefore most of Autoura's initial experiences will be cocktail tours and bar crawls.
The fundamental question is, "How do you get to the consumer when they are in a location?" Bainbridge said. The idea is for tour operators and hotels to promote the service to guests with their own branding.
"We've been so focused on just getting the core experience right. Now we're focused on the distribution side of the problem, which is, how do you get into the hotel concierges?" Bainbridge said.
"We've now delivered the platform and delivered the capability. [This year] is now all about getting distribution in place so we can scale that up."
Bainbridge discussed some of the challenges for this new segment, the size of the opportunity and a potential timeline in this video from June 2022.