We’ve all heard of unmanned cars, taxis and buses for the general public, but what about the more luxurious variety of transport and chauffeur services? I’m talking about driverless limousines. In an age where 3D printers are creating self-driving buses, Singapore has hopped on the bandwagon with Technical Reference 68, a set of guidelines that ensure the safe deployment of driverless vehicles, and welcomed nuTonomy, a start-up that is working to roll out the world’s first autonomous taxi system in Singapore.
Original Featured Image: The Verge
Driverless Chauffeur Service in Singapore
ComfortDelGro has also unveiled a self-driving shuttle service at the Kent Ridge campus of the National University of Singapore, which came at the heels of the introduction of Volvo’s self-driving electric buses at Nanyang Technological University. There’s no question we’re headed towards an autonomous future in transport. Yet, we haven’t heard much about higher-end travel services going high-tech.
History of Chauffeur Service
Chauffeur services, in particular those that offer the stretch limousine experience, are typically engaged by high-profile individuals for VIP events. Otherwise, it could also be arranged for a personal, private celebration to mark a significant occasion. Back in the day, a chauffeur was simply a person who is employed to transport you from point A to B. Imagine riding on a horse carriage, and that carriage being driven by a chauffeur.
This means chauffeur services have been around much longer than we might expect, predating the steam engine. The term itself (originally carrying a slightly different definition) has been in use since 1896. Today, chauffeurs are more than your average taxi driver. A private, luxury service, they may serve CEOs who need to flit from place to place for work and have no time to hail cabs, or socialites who fancy arriving at a destination in style.
History of Limousine
Perhaps the pinnacle of all chauffeured cars is the stretch limousine. Formerly known as big band buses, they were first invented in 1928 by Armbruster, a coach company that manufactured cars that mainly functioned to transport “big band” icons, groups and their equipment. These elevated, elongated black sedans were typically custom-made, until the 1960s, when the Lehmann-Peterson Company and Hess & Eisenhardt decided to get high-end Cadillac and Lincoln cars, cleave them in half, elongate them by 60 to 72 inches, and spruce them up with additional interior gadgets.
The 1970s was when the demand and popularity of stretch limousines grew, as did the size of the vehicles. The vehicle quickly evolved into a status symbol for the nouveau riche, synonymous to flamboyance and extravagance. Priced at between $40,000 and $80,000 each, these sleek, black carriages were driving the luxury chauffeur service industry at that time.
Thanks to its additional length, it can accommodate amenities such as a plasma TV, a mini bar, a fridge and a karaoke machine. As always, passengers are given absolute privacy, sitting in a separate cabin from the driver so that the chauffeur won’t be able to see inside the guest’s cabin. The trend peaked in the 1980s, just before the economic collapse of 1987, which led to the decline of limousine production.
In the States, circa the 1990s, only about 5,800 limousines were produced each year by 57 companies. A decade earlier, when these luxury vehicles were at their zenith, that number was at about 7,000. One of the biggest manufacturers of king-sized limos in North America, A. H. A. Automotive Technologies Corporation, even went bankrupt.
The market gradually recovered, but with the advent of other luxury modes of chauffeured transportation, the stretch limo took somewhat of a backseat.
Limousine Chauffeur Services Today
Yet, it still makes an appearance for the odd wedding or prom night. As far as regular limousines go (limousines are simply chauffeured cars, whereas stretch limos are longer versions of those cars), the demand still seems stable. In Singapore, ride-hailing users have been making more requests for limo taxi services such as Uber Black (before the app was acquired by Grab).
BT Limousine, the first limousine booking app in Bangkok, launched two years ago, while Koi, an erstwhile ride-hailing app in Dubai, recently rebranded as a limousine platform. Mercedes-Benz is even preparing for a luxury, on-demand driverless limo service. As with everything else, this mode of chauffeured transportation is getting a high-tech, AI-powered makeover.
Renault has also unveiled the EZ-Ultimo, a concept car and self-driving limo meant to work as a “first-class lounge”, an extension of a premium experience offered by a luxury service provider. This particular dream automobile boasts marble surfaces, and armchairs and benches that fit a total of three passengers.
Are Self-driving Chauffeur Services the future?
There’s reason to believe this could be a potential market that will cater to current, tech-savvy demographics and affluent yuppies, looking for sleeker rides at their fingertips. Besides, the appeal of limousines lies in the extravagance of the environment, and the privacy one gets in the passenger seat, away from the chauffeur. Since you’re not going to interact much with the driver, what would you lose by getting rid of the person entirely? An autonomous limo would be an improvement by all means, assuming safety isn’t an issue.
On the flip side, if you consider the EZ-Ultimo, you’d be riding temporarily in a masterpiece as part of service—a masterpiece that would make more sense to own rather than to rent. Not to mention, as the world goes digital and tech-enabled products and services become the new norm, luxury services are going back to the human touch to offer more personalised experiences.
Here’s a case in point: Luxury concierges allow users to place the most bizarre and extreme requests that no android, no matter how sophisticated, would be able to fulfil—requests that hinge on the human concierge’s soft skills and personal contacts to make the impossible possible.
Similarly, a chauffeured ride that comes without an actual human chauffeur might defeat its purpose, and even take away the “luxury” aspect of the service. This limits the degree to which the limo service can be tailored to your specific needs and on-the-go whims. For this reason, it’s possible for driverless limos to turn out to be a useless venture, especially with the competition of more widely accepted driverless cars. While it might not work as an on-demand service, the upper crust of society might find value in them as personal investments nonetheless. m;7