Can Entrepreneurs Help Solve The Problem Of Cities Clogged With Cars?

Fans of American comedy documentary maker John Wilson may have seen his How To guide to finding a parking space in New York City. The message of Wilson’s comic odyssey was clear. Buy a car in the city and you’re setting yourself up for a world of pain, with life reduced to a constant struggle to find places to park your car safely. Over time, this will become an obsession. I think we’ve all been there. And whether you’re talking about London, Paris or Mumbai, it’s pretty much the same wherever you go.

But it’s not just a problem for car owners. Huge chunks of land in cities are given over to parking spaces. Sites that could be used to create green spaces or for new homes are set aside for vehicles. Added to this are the pollution problems caused by millions of vehicles running in low gear. This will be less of a problem when electric vehicles become dominant, but then you will have the new challenge of finding places for all the necessary charging points. So how do you reduce the number of cars on the road while keeping us all moving.

Cities now generally have good public transport and many city dwellers have made conscious decisions not to drive, not least here in the UK where I’m based. Back in 2020, analysis by the DVLA – Britain’s vehicle licensing authority – found that car ownership levels in urban settings were falling, not just in London. Boroughs in Oxford, Brighton, Newcastle and Birmingham all saw a fall in the number of people owning and driving cars. This is a trend that has been accelerated to some extent by local authorities licensing personal transport solutions such as scooters and bicycles while increasing parking charges.

Personal transport

But here’s the thing. There will be times when many of us will need to use cars. There are journeys where buses, trams, trains or scooters just can’t cut the mustard. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to own them.

I spoke to two British entrepreneurs who are proposing different solutions aimed at taming the negative impact of cars on the urban environment.

Michael Mangion is the founder of Trivial, The company’s solution to the urban transportation problem is an on-demand vehicle service. Customers who need a car will use an app to place an order. The car will then be driven remotely to the designated location. The customer then takes control of the vehicle. Once the session is over, the remote driver “teleports” back and takes the car to the next job.

As Mangion recalls, the inspiration for Trilvey was, at least in part, his wife’s experiences when the couple lived in the Scottish city of Dundee. “My wife had a 100-mile drive to work, and she was doing it by herself in a 1.6-tonne car,” he says.

So Mangion’s goal was to make the use of the vehicle more efficient. The company cites data that says the average car sits idle for 11.4 years out of a 12-year life cycle. At the same time, many trips are with one passenger. “Seeing a business opportunity, Mangion – a software engineer by trade – began working on a system that would reduce the number of vehicles on the road while ensuring that city dwellers could access cars when needed.

Alex Kendall, CEO and Co-Founder of Wave has taken a different approach. Instead of developing a service, his company is developing hardware and software that could accelerate the arrival of driverless, autonomous cars and vans. Essentially, the technology, independent of the manufacturer, can be installed and a combination of computer vision and AI allows them to navigate safely in traffic. Importantly, thanks to machine learning, the system can be trained to drive on the roads in a remarkably short period of time.

The company has been testing on public roads since 2018 and has signed commercial partnerships with delivery companies Asda, Ocado and DSP to conduct tests on their fleets. To fund the commercial deployment of the system, Wayve has just raised $200 million in Series B funding. Its goal as an organization is to have its technology used in 100 UK cities.

Green urban spaces

So what are the benefits? Well, safety is important. Once the technology is perfected, autonomous vehicles should not make the mistakes that drivers are prone to. But like Mangion, Kendall also sees an opportunity to create greener, more people-friendly cities. “Autonomous vehicles will allow us to reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” he says. For example, autonomy will be a factor for hail ride services.

This is clearly a hot area for the automotive industry as a whole. But is it a place for entrepreneurs? After all, the big names in the auto industry are pouring money into autonomous systems. So is it possible for a startup to gain market share?

Kendall says Wayve’s strength is its expert research team and innovative AI and camera technology.

But entrepreneurs face the challenge of scaling their technology. In the near future, Wayve’s partnerships for delivery services will allow the company to take its technology to the streets.

Trilvee’s approach was to talk to local authorities who might be interested in adopting an on-demand car service. Mangion says he has received two LOIs (letters of intent) to date, although the councils in question cannot be named.

The plan is to focus on relatively small towns. As demand is limited by population, an efficient service can be introduced with fewer vehicles. Mangion stresses that it aims to move quickly beyond the testing stage. “We don’t want to have another trial. We have to go to the market,” he says. To date, angel, friends and family funding has been secured, but he is looking for more investment.

Mangion emphasizes that Trilvee vehicles will complement other forms of urban transportation, such as e-scooters and e-bike rentals. “We want to interact with them,” he says. “They’re usually last-mile options. They go no further. We can bring in people from the suburbs.

Kendall agrees that a number of solutions are needed in the smart cities of the future. “Cities need to take a broad view of transport. We need everything – walking, cycling, riding, micromobility, personal transport. Solutions for the last mile and the first mile.”

All of these provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, but regulatory support from local and national governments is critical. Kendall’s green light from the national government will be crucial to the development of the autonomous vehicle market. “Our request to the government is that they introduce the legislation quickly as they promised,” he says.

The way we move around cities is changing, and it will take many forms, with electric, autonomous and remote-controlled cars being part of a much bigger mix. How fast it comes is another matter. Much of the technology is already in place, the speed of deployment will depend not only on engineering, software and investment, but also on the speed of regulatory support.