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Experts: Fleets, Public Transit Would Benefit from AV Tech

The personal self-driving car has been derided as little more than whimsy by many transportation watchers, who see fleet vehicles and public transit as the real beneficiaries of autonomous vehicle technology.

An autonomous shuttle in Utah with it's doors open.
An autonomous shuttle project in Utah helped make the technology more familiar to residents, and helped transportation officials understand how to make the technology a part of the public transit system.
Image Courtesy of Utah
Introducing autonomous vehicle (AV) technology into fleet vehicles and public transit could increase safety, efficiency and equity, say transportation officials and experts in the AV industry.

Achieving automation at scale for both fleet vehicles and public transit can yield exponential gains in areas like broadening transit opportunities — far beyond what can be achieved with personal self-driving cars.

“It’s about producing better access to transportation,” said Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora, discussing the expansion of AV tech at the 10th annual Transportation Research Board Automated Road Transportation Symposium.

Urmson noted the often-cited statistic that personal cars sit unused 95 percent of the time.

“If, instead, we are able to provide lower-cost access to transportation, through a fleet of vehicles that are automated … so that the cost of operating that vehicle is depreciated across many people, that’s providing better access to everyone,” said Urmson.

Companies like Mobileye have plans to launch fleets of robo-taxis, bringing automation to ride-hailing. Meanwhile, numerous autonomous shuttle test projects have cropped up in cities across the country, with a number of transit agencies, such as the Jacksonville Transportation Authority in Florida, planning to integrate self-driving vehicles into their systems.

Among the different state projects, an autonomous shuttle pilot in Utah has been seen as wildly successful. Utah plans to explore more opportunities for low-speed self-driving shuttles.

“We wanted to assess the viability of this kind of technology as regular transit service,” said Blaine Leonard, transportation technology engineer at the Utah Department of Transportation, during a panel discussion Tuesday at the symposium. “Fulfill the need to solve the first-mile, last-mile problem. And in concert with that, we wanted to understand its operational characteristics.”

State and local transit authorities used the pilot to gain insight into how to maintain the vehicles and their operational limitations under Utah’s environmental conditions.

“We really wanted to expose the public to this kind of technology,” Leonard added. “We talk about automated vehicle technology, but most of the public is very unfamiliar. They’ve never seen one. They’ve never ridden in one. They’ve never touched one.”

AVs have the ability to expand access to transportation by making ride-hailing or public transit more ubiquitous and cheaper, noted Steven Cliff, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Equity is a really important issue in transportation, not only making sure that we have equitable access to destinations, because we know that transportation provides opportunities,” said Cliff.

“There’s an inequitable distribution of transportation, as a resource, throughout our economy today,” he added. “And to the extent that you can lower that barrier through providing a much less costly access to a destination, that’s a great outcome.”

Cliff also pointed out that safety must be taken into account in terms of both equity and cost.

Automation in transportation will almost surely happen in tandem with the electrification of the transportation sector, say observers, which many believe is a necessary step in reducing greenhouse gases from tailpipe emissions. Couple this benefit with the ability of AVs to broaden equity and mobility, and the technology is all the more consequential, Urmson said.

“We are on the cusp of what will be, I think, one of the biggest transformations in transportation since the invention of the automobile,” he predicted.

Cliff argued it’s important to remember that technology should serve people as opposed to the reverse.

“I want to ensure that this epidemic of fatalities that we experience in America is something that we address very seriously, and [we need to] drive those numbers down as quickly as we possibly can,” Cliff said. “I don’t know if automated vehicles are the vaccine that cures the epidemic, but I think that technology really can help us advance our safety.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.