Robot shuttles are an important new, reconfigurable form of transportation for goods and people that may even function as mobile offices, workshops, restaurants and more.

The typical shuttle coming into operation is upright, boxy, 8-20 person vehicles that are symmetrical like a small train so they never have to do a U turn. Small footprint, all-round vision, large doors, quiet, zero emission, they can go indoors and over piazzas and roads and are able perform many different tasks even in one day.

Primarily intended for intensive urban use, they are gated to never exceed a determined speed, typically in the range 50-60 kph.

According to a new report, Robot Shuttles: Major New Form of Transportation, by analyst firm IDTechEx, these shuttles are a new form of transport backed by both huge companies like Toyota and Baidu and startups, one having raised US$1 billion dollars for the task.

Their trials explore many possible applications, from empowering the poor and disabled, to filing in gaps in the transportation network and replacing hopelessly underutilized vehicles such as private cars, reducing congestion and cost. 

Out of 36 different robot shuttle models and precursors examined in fifteen countries and deployed in twenty, IDTechEx identifies nine with excellent design, successful trials, strong backing and imaginative multi-purposing. They carry about 14 passengers when in bus mode.

A few have over 100 units deployed. However, the technology for fully independent Level 5 autonomy robot shuttles will not be widely deployable until later in the decade. Currently, there is usually tele-supervision and a supervisor on board.

IDTechEx finds that robot shuttles are keyed to trends such as the move to cities, the demand for travel for all, including those that cannot afford or manage existing forms and those located where demand does not justify a regular bus. They will also be deployed to eliminate road congestion. From Finland to Japan trials show promise in viably reinstating feeder buses from villages to cities, previously abandoned because of poor usage and losses resulting.

In Switzerland, the robot Postbus even manages narrow bridges and narrow roads with both post and passengers. Tourists love the all-round vision of the robot shuttle but this is only a beginning.

IDTechEx suggests last mile freight as another potential use, all raising the prospect of free human travel on the back of it. An Amazon delivery/school bus robot shuttle has been conceived.

At the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics Toyota will transport the disabled more efficiently, safely and pleasurably using its new robot shuttles.

On the downside, IDTechEx says that autonomy is not quite where it needs to be to make these work, and likewise, EV technology is still developing.

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