Your future driving experience: Q&A with auto expert, Bill Russo

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Few observers of the evolution of the automotive scene have had a better vantage point than Bill Russo. With more than 30 years in the industry — half of that time as an auto executive with experience in China and Asia — Russo nowadays heads up the Automotive practice for Gao Feng Greater China, working as the company’s senior representative in Shanghai. We spoke with Bill recently for our third installment of our Q&A series to get his take on the impact of autonomous driving and the emergence of smart vehicles on the roads.

Q: How will the driving experience change in the Autonomous Age?

A: The potential is there for a complete redefinition of what we mean by transportation, both in terms of comfort and convenience. With the advent of autonomous driving, we’re talking about a transition from a device where we really had to focus on the road — because we were the brains of the car — to where we can focus on other things. That is time given back to us that will allow us to do other things because we won’t have to monitor what’s going on with the vehicle itself.


Q: Thinking back to how the public reacted to other major technology shifts in transportation, such as trains or commercial aviation – To what extent were these shifts driven by the user-convenience factor?

A: When you look back in history, the greatest inventions by humans — the wheel, the bicycle, the steam ship, the train, the airplane — they all exist to give us the ability to travel over increasingly greater distances. Over time, each invention added more convenience and more new features to make the experience of mobility much more enjoyable and less painless. And as each of these solutions became commercially viable and affordable, they did so by offering users a benefit versus whatever preceding form of transportation they had favored up to that point―a benefit for which they were willing to pay.


Q: How important was the pace of technological progress?

A: It’s not about creating a technology for the sake of having the technology; it’s about providing a more comfortable and convenient way for people to travel the distances that we travel each day. They have to provide a tangible benefit for people to be willing to pay and use the new mode of transport. For example, trains reduced the amount of time that it took to travel across the country from months to days. The commercial airplane reduces that same time to a matter of hours. We can circle the world in a jet in little more than a day. Not so long ago, in historical terms, that journey took people years in a boat and they may not even have lived to tell the story.


Q: Where do cars fit in the historical narrative?

A: The car became a primary means for the average person to satisfy their daily needs for mobility. We’ve designed city and transportation networks that were basically designed for vehicular transportation. In the 21st century, we’re seeing a phenomenon — particularly in emerging markets in Asia — where there are now very densely populated urban centers. That urbanized context is not really well suited for the car that we know today. Today’s cars are designed really for highway transportation. So in an increasingly urbanized world, we’re going to experience the next evolution of convenience and mobility which I think will be an autonomous mobility solution.


Q: Will perceptions of autonomous driving vary by country due to local conditions?

A: Absolutely. First of all, comfort and convenience are solutions to mobility “pain points” and the degree to which people experience pain points varies greatly based upon where they live. Mobility pain is much higher in densely populated cities, like New York or Paris or Delhi — and virtually all major cities in China. A city like Beijing experiences gridlock several times a day. And the driving experience in a highly urbanized country like China can be horrific. You can spend an hour going less than 10 miles in a car. So the joy of being behind the wheel and driving is not really there. It’s a big difference from the driving experience of getting out on the open highway. New forms of electric and autonomous mobility―like the advent of on-demand mobility where a user pays only for the time they are in the car, rather than owning it 24/7 and using it only seldom — will be a common solution to address the mobility pain points in many places.


Q: What does it mean when we have autonomous vehicles on the road that are designed from a user-centric perspective
 as opposed to the current driver-centric mindset?

A: With autonomous cars, we will be able to transform travel time into productive time — especially for longer distance commutes. There’s the potential to participate in the digital ecosystem, offering users in autonomous cars access to services and content that they can consume while mobile. Convenience services could include infotainment or watching news or doing emails and conference calls. The car thus becomes a connected rolling space that transports us to places where we live, work, and play.


Q: As autonomous technology removes the drudgery of mundane tasks associated with driving, how does that reshape how we relate to vehicles?

A: Vehicles will have the intelligence to diagnose the situations that they’re in and make the more complex decisions that human beings today make. That not only reduces the pain points of driving, it also is going to make the overall experience more convenient, safer, and enjoyable for the occupants.


With autonomous driving, we’re arriving at a point where we can define a new paradigm that refocuses how the passenger conducts and uses their transportation time. Observing what happens outside of the car, for instance, moves from being a requirement to a choice. You don’t have to look outside the window any longer. You can — if that’s what you want to do. But you really don’t have to concern yourself with what you see outside. It’s like being an airline passenger looking out the window. You can look out the window but do you really need to?


Think about the “cockpit” space that’s now allocated in vehicles for the purpose of giving drivers information they need to make decisions. You can repurpose all of that from a driver-passenger perspective to a connected user perspective. You will be able to provide people display space that allows them a more productive use of information that they may need to go about their day. While the purpose of the car doesn’t change — it’s still a transportation system — this new concept of how to offer a convenience-oriented autonomous vehicle to the occupant(s) is different.

For more stories, please visit our page on Medium.com, https://medium.com/drive-publication

About Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. 
Nissan is a global full-line vehicle manufacturer that sells more than 60 models under the Nissan, Infiniti and Datsun brands. In fiscal year 2015, the company sold more than 5.4 million vehicles globally, generating revenue of 12.2 trillion yen. Nissan engineers, manufactures and markets the world’s best-selling all-electric vehicle in history, the Nissan LEAF. Nissan’s global headquarters in Yokohama, Japan manages operations in six regions: ASEAN & Oceania; Africa, Middle East & India; China; Europe; Latin America and North America. Nissan has been partnered with French manufacturer Renault since 1999 and Mitsubishi Motors since 2016 under the Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Disrupting the Disruptors: The Merger Of Uber China And Didi Chuxing

Forbes, August 8, 2016

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I co-authored this article with my colleague Edward Tse, CEO of Gao Feng Advisory Company

On August 1st, Didi Chuxing (Didi)and Uber China announced a plan to merge their businesses in China, effectively placing Didi in control of their combined ride-hailing business for the China market.  This deal has attracted a great deal of attention since the announcement, raising a number of critical questions which we address in this article, including:

  • Did the China government play any role in the merger?
  • Can foreign tech companies compete in China?
  • Did Uber China win or lose?
  • Could Uber China ever have become a dominant player in China if it decided to press ahead?
  • What will this deal mean to Uber and Didi’s global strategies?

China has become the epicenter of a disruptive wave of digital innovation, and the rapidly evolving landscape of partnerships for mobility services is a clear indication of this.  For sure, we can look forward to even more exciting developments in the future.

Click here to read the article at Forbes.com

Uber-Didi Merger Has Chinese Consumers Worried

The Sixth Tone, August 2, 2016

A passenger holds a smartphone showing the Didi Chuxing application, Shanghai, May 22, 2016. Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG
A passenger holds a smartphone showing the Didi Chuxing application, Shanghai, May 22, 2016. Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG

by Fan Yiying

After a prolonged price war for ride-hailing customers, Chinese market leader Didi Chuxing and its biggest rival Uber merged on Monday. Now, passengers are worried this will mean a quick end to heavily discounted trips.

Shanghai native Ma Yanyan, 29, rides with either Uber or Didi to work every day. She told Sixth Tone that she has noticed Uber is sending fewer coupons to its users. “As a consumer, I’m very realistic,” she said. “I’ll go back to taking taxis once Uber raises its prices.”

Wang Mengyan, 25, is a frequent user of ride-hailing apps, and she is afraid the merger will mean higher prices. “As a consumer,” she told Sixth Tone, “we want to see competition between Didi and Uber so that we can enjoy the best discounts.”

Yang Mengyi, 28, told Sixth Tone she spends about 150 yuan (about $22) on Didi every week, but that she thought the merger wouldn’t have much of an impact. “Taxis will always be another option,” she said, adding that she prefers cabs because they are more strictly regulated.

Online, many net users echoed Yang’s opinion, saying that if prices rise too high, they will just go back to using regular taxis. News of the merger — and the possible end of discounted fares — has cab drivers delighted.

Chen Yugang, a taxi driver in the northern coastal city of Tianjin, expressed his relief after Monday’s news. He told Sixth Tone that he used to earn about 5,500 yuan per month before the emergence of car-hailing apps. His current monthly income has decreased to less than 3,000 yuan. “Why would passengers take a cab and pay me 20 yuan when they can ride with Uber for as low as 5 yuan?” he said.

Chen said that companies like Uber have disturbed the market, and he hopes the merger will bring consumers back to traditional taxis.

Bill Russo, an automobile consultant at Gao Feng Advisory Company in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone he estimates pricing may move somewhat higher after the merger, but that “it can’t be much higher for the simple reason that ride hailing services need to compete with taxis.” He added that, to Uber and Didi, the real purpose of the merger isn’t to increase prices, but to decrease costs in the form of incentives given out to passengers and drivers in order to win market share.

Full-time Shanghai-based Uber driver Xing Zhiwei told Sixth Tone that the news of the merger has him concerned. “In less than a year, the allowance for 12 rides has dropped from 150 yuan to 40 yuan,” said Xing, adding that he fears such driver subsidies will drop even further.

Zhuang Chunhui, a communications manager for Uber China, told Sixth Tone on Tuesday that the incentive policy for drivers will not change after the merger. She said that the amount of subsidies varies in different cities at the different times. “The discounts we offer to our users will also change from time to time,” she added, “but this has nothing to do with the merger either.”

Wang Mingze, a public relations manager for Didi Chuxing in Shanghai, said the merger will enable the company to increase the efficiency with which it accepts orders, and that this “can eventually increase the drivers’ incomes.” As for passengers, Wang said price is just one part of the service. “What’s more important is whether users can book the car and enjoy a comfortable ride whenever they want,” he said.

Additional reporting by Wang Lianzhang.

Click here to read the article at sixthtone.com

Chinese firms accelerate in race toward driverless future

AFP Newswires, April 23, 2016

 

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Chinese Internet giant LeECO Holdings Ltd unveils its internet electric battery driverless concept car ‘LeSEE’,  during a launch event in Beijing, on April 20, 2016

 

Beijing: Chinese manufacturers and internet giants are in hot pursuit of their US counterparts in the race to design driverless cars, but the route to market is still littered with potholes.

While Google has been working on autonomous vehicles for at least six years, with the likes of BMW, Volvo and Toyota in its wake, more recently Chinese businesses have entered the race, from internet search giant Baidu to manufacturer Changan.

Last week, ahead of the Beijing Auto Show opening on Monday, two self-driving Changan cars made a mountainous 2,000 kilometre (1,200 mile) journey from Chongqing in the southwest to the capital in the country’s first long-distance autonomous vehicle test.

Another Chinese internet giant, LeECO, is also venturing into autonomous technologies, unveiling Wednesday in Beijing an electric car that can park itself and be summoned to its owner’s location via smartphone.

And late last year Baidu tested China’s first locally designed driverless vehicle, a modified BMW, with a 30 kilometre ride through the streets of Beijing.

Despite China’s relatively late entry to the field, analysts believe the country could become a key market for driverless vehicles thanks to a more favourable regulatory and consumer environment.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) forecasts that global sales of driverless cars will reach 12 million by 2035, with more than a quarter sold in China.

Vehicles which automatically adjust their routes in response to real-time traffic information could solve chronic gridlock in China’s major cities, BCG’s Xavier Mosquet told AFP.

“If they believe this would ease traffic, Chinese authorities will do all they can to promote the development of this technology and then its use,” he said.

Robot taxis

Public concerns over the safety of driverless cars are far lower than elsewhere, according to a survey by Roland Berger consultants in 2015, which found 96 per cent of Chinese would consider an autonomous vehicle for almost all everyday driving, compared with 58 per cent of Americans and Germans.

In a country notorious for accidents, the promise of better safety through autonomous technologies could also be appealing.

The ultimate prize, say analysts, will be when mass transport firms such as taxi-hailing giant Uber, or its Chinese rival Didi, can deploy huge fleets of robot taxis.

“The real payoff for truly driverless technology will come when cars on the road are no longer owned by people, but are owned by fleet management services,” said Bill Russo, managing director of the consultancy firm Gao Feng.

“That’s where you want to think about taking the driver out of the equation. Mobility on demand is hugely popular here.”

In the Roland Berger survey, 51 per cent of Chinese car owners said they would prefer to use robot taxis rather than buy a new vehicle themselves, compared with 26 per cent of Americans.

With a ready market, China may soon become the top location for companies to refine driverless technology.

Swedish manufacturer Volvo, owned by China’s Geely since 2010, this month announced plans to test drive up to 100 of its vehicles on Chinese roads this year.

Changan, a partner of Ford, is set to roll out commercial autonomous vehicles for motorways from 2018, while mass production of driverless city cars is projected to begin in 2025.

‘Does the car choose?’

Baidu, meanwhile, says it will launch self-driving buses by 2018, which will operate on fixed routes in select cities in China.

Like Google, the internet giant already owns detailed road maps and has experience in electronic security, and a company spokeswoman told AFP it had had “very positive feedback” from the government.

But analysts are more cautious, predicting slow-moving autonomous vehicles will not appear in towns until at least 2020.

Production costs were still too high to make a robot taxi fleet viable, BCG’s Mosquet said.

“There are still many questions to be resolved” before fully autonomous vehicles can be put into public use, said Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst for IHS.

He pointed to “chaotic traffic situations” on roads shared with cyclists and pedestrians, and less-than-adequate infrastructure.

Technology will be the first to see solutions, he said, but that still left regulation and issues around liability and insurance to be addressed.

For some, there are moral dilemmas as well.

“If you have someone jumping out in front of an autonomous car, does the car have to choose between killing that person, or swerving and crashing and killing the passenger?” asked Robin Zhu, senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

“If your car could choose to kill you, would you get in it?”

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-chinese-firms-driverless-future.html#jCp

Chinese using carpooling apps to get ride home for holidays

The Associated Press, February 5, 2016

Chinese using carpooling apps to get ride home for holidays Google Chrome, Today at 4.24.12 PM

In this Feb. 2, 2016 photo, real estate agent Chen Xiao, top center in white, poses with passengers from left top, He Shaolei, Han Ajuan, Han’s son Miao Ruijing, Zhang Tao and Li Jin before they start their journey back to their hometown for the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year, in Shanghai, China. They met on the ride-share app of Didi Chuxing, an Uber-like mobile car-hailing service. Carpooling is still unusual in China, but government officials welcome the idea as a way to alleviate the enormous burden placed on the public transportation system during the Lunar New Year holidays, China’s most important vacation period when hundreds of millions travel to their hometowns. Three others in bottom are another group, from left, Zhang Xiaohui, Yang Chuang and Xu Peng. (AP Photo/Paul Traynor)

 

SHANGHAI (AP) — The hundreds of millions of Chinese heading home for Lunar New Year have a relatively new travel option this year: mobile apps to find carpool partners to share costs in what is a novel concept for most Chinese.

The apps give an alternative to pricey airfares and hard-to-score train tickets. Software developer Li Jin in Shanghai used one after he had to abort his flight plans because of last-minute work demands, and found that the only train tickets left going to his hometown in northwestern Shaanxi province were for expensive business-class seats.

Then he tried using the Didi Chuxing (pronounced “dee dee choo shing”) carpool app and found a driver, real estate agent Chen Xiao, going his way.

“She said she still had a free space, so we agreed and now I’m using this way to get home,” Li said.

Li paid Chen 400 yuan ($60) for his seat home, roughly the same cost for a second-class train ticket for the same journey. He shared the ride in a BMW sedan with three other passengers, including a child.

The road trip through clogged highways was nearly 23 hours, twice the travel time of an express train, but Li said he appreciated the companionship.

“I think I will do the same for my return trip after the new year, because I get to know new friends, and it’s an experience,” he said.

Carpooling is still unusual in China, but government officials welcome the idea as a way to alleviate the enormous burden placed on the public transportation system during the Lunar New Year holidays, China’s most important vacation period when hundreds of millions travel to their hometowns. All told, Chinese will make a total of 2.9 billion trips this holiday season, and 2.5 billion of them will be by road, according to official estimates.

“We encourage car-pooling services that are not intended to make profits,” transportation official Wang Shuiping was quoted as saying by state media outlets. “We also remind that parties to the services must be clear on each side’s rights and obligations to avoid disputes.”

Leading the nascent inter-city carpooling market is Didi Chuxing, an Uber-like mobile car-hailing service that has been most commonly used for hailing city rides, but the company began to offer carpooling services for city commuters over the past year and, by the end of September, introduced car-sharing services for inter-city trips among 343 Chinese cities.

Users can pick the departure city and destination city and enter the desired date of travel to find private drivers with the same itinerary and an empty seat.

“We launched this matchmaking function to help us make this inter-city car sharing service another means of transportation alongside planes, trains and other forms of public transport,” Didi Chuxing spokesman Wang Mingze said.

Wang said 300,000 used the service in the first of week of the holiday travel, which began Jan. 24. As the Feb. 8 start of the holiday drew closer, the usage jumped to 100,000 per day, and nearly half of the orders involved trips longer than 500 kilometers (310 miles), he said.

Wang estimated that the platform would serve more than 1 million people by the end of the 40-day travel period.

Another player in the market is 58 Ganji Group, China’s largest online classified ad service, where users have been for years posting carpooling information and which also now has a mobile app. Huang Wei, a vice president, said the site expects to have more than 1 million posts for carpooling this holiday season, up from last year’s 700,000 posts, although the company does not track the completion rates.

“China does not have a carpooling culture yet, but you see a spike during the holiday season, when the demand goes up because people cannot secure train tickets and seek alternatives,” Huang said.

He said the routes posted in online classified ads conform to the migration patterns in China, where migrant workers flow from inner provinces to the more prosperous coastal provinces for work.

Didi Chuxing says it has purchased insurance for its users.

Bill Russo, an auto industry analyst at Gao Feng Advisory Company in Shanghai, said the app is another example how the technology is empowering the public. “It’s growing even more popular as an alternative to individual car ownership or public transportation.”