Self-driving, shared mobility and EV for sub-Saharan Africa

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Just over 3 years ago, I convinced Toyota to co-sponsor the first Techcrunch event in the MENA region that was held in the Autumn of 2018 in Beirut. It was an eye-opener to the developing ecosystems of the Near and Middle East, with strong attendance from neighboring countries, and Middle Eastern and North Africa-based entrepreneurs. The following year in 2019 I was invited to the inaugural Dubai World Congress for Self-Driving Transport and was able to get to meet local government officials at the Road Transport Authority (RTA) to better understand their needs in more depth. This was in the context of their ambitious Dubai Autonomous Transport strategy to get 25% of all rides in Dubai “smart and driverless” by 2030. I have since been mulling the potential impact of the automated, connected, electrified, shared (so-called “ACES”) mobility trend in sub-Saharan economies, but never got beyond surface level searches.

A recent article in the Journal of Transport Geography is a highly recommended in-depth read on conditions prevailing in the four key megacities of Johannesburg, Kigali, Lagos and Nairobi, and potential ideas for accelerated adoption. Key takeaways:

(1) Don’t assume that developments in advanced economies will be adopted as-is and in the order they were developed in Germany, the US, or Japan. Most people in these four megacities don’t have access to affordable public transportation, relying on cars or informal minibus sharing that comprise about 40+% of all trips made today. Unsurprisingly, two-wheelers are more nimble and cheaper to maintain/buy, so two-wheelers are also a very popular local form of transportation including doubling as taxis. So “shared mobility” as such is not a future trend but rather conjugated in the past and present tenses.

(2) Lack of access to a widespread and stable electricity grid is a major issue for the decarbonization of mobility, and for industrial development more generally. This could be offset by short trip e-scooters but rough road conditions may mean a two-wheeler is better all round. Early trials show total cost of ownership demonstrations may tip the scales if it’s cheaper to run, especially for utilization-hungry businesses such as informal minibus or motorbike taxi fleet owners and drivers. Another option is battery-swap stations, inspired by the experiments coming out of China driven by carmaker Nio and local government incentives, which don’t require a charging infrastructure. But it does assume massive availability/capacity-build of battery plants which relegate this option to the medium term.

(3) Connectivity exists and is widespread in Nigeria for example (2G coverage at 70%, 3G at 50%), while 5G is hitting Lagos some time in the next 6-12 months. So unless you’re running full remote teleoperation Level 4 self-driving, basic connectivity for Level 2 self-driving autonomy is reasonable.

(4) Poor paved road maintenance is an issue that drives risk in the autonomy system. Sure the DARPA challenge had self-driving prototypes running around trying to carve a path through the bush but it’s not exactly confidence-inspiring for customers looking for a safe alternative to their existing commute option. Unfortunately it seems that both Kenya and South Africa have paved road percentage of total road network hovering in the teens according to Frost & Sullivan, and in the case of South Africa about 1/3 of those are in poor condition or worse. The number goes down to 21% for better managed metro areas such as Johannesberg. So as long as roads are paved and service deployment begins on the highway where conditions tend to be better, in the key metro areas your human-centric Level 2 autonomy system is likely going to work fine.

To summarize, it boils down to service affordability including how to win over dominant incumbent transport modes for quick adoption (informal minibus taxi/car/two wheeler taxi), stabilizing and augmenting the electricity grid, starting with areas where paved road conditions are reasonably good, and government support for incentives a la California Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) etc. We should note that California’s ZEV program launched back in 1990 (!) and has had time to develop over time… governments need to move quickly and early to fine tune that sandbox for their industries.

While all the above may mean it’s not Wakanda quite yet, the first step towards accelerating ecological and monetary benefits to local users starts with leveraging structural strengths of the local mobility environment.