As you read this, the entire transportation industry—from automakers to heavy freight lines and public transit systems—is facing a coming revolution: automated vehicle (AV) technology, which is likely to change everything from the size and shape of vehicles to the purpose and function of mobility.
For public transportation, the challenges posed by AV technology center on timing, service, and resources:
* How should long-range transit plans—those that are 10 or 12 years out—accommodate automated vehicles, especially when these vehicles are in their engineering and design infancy?
* What do public transit officials at small- and mid-size agencies need to know to accurately predict how driverless vehicles will affect their fleets, their workforce, and their service?
* How is the extensive global supply chain adapting?
* What will AVs mean for paratransit?
* Perhaps most importantly, what’s the impact on the “big three” resources of people, time, and money?
At this point in the evolution of automated vehicle technology, there are more questions than answers, except for one fact: Automated vehicles are coming, and coming fast. The new industry is advancing so rapidly that some experts predict it will change fixed route transit as dramatically as Model Ts changed the horse and buggy.
Dozens of business books have been written about paradigm shifts, exploring in part the theory that the longer individuals have been engaged in an industry, the less able they are to acknowledge change. At the November 2013 Automated Vehicle Summit in Florida, one long-time public transit veteran—so used to the way transit has operated for the past 30 years—expressed the wishful logic that since George Jetson’s flying cars never materialized, neither will driverless public transit. He might want to reconsider: The first wave of driverless transit vehicles has hit the market.
Induct, a robust French technology company, has just launched a robotic driverless electric shuttle called Navia. It carries eight passengers, travels 12.5 miles per hour, and costs around $250,000 per unit. Induct’s North American Director Corey Clothier said, “Navia has been designed to complement conventional transport—public or private—by taking care of the ‘last mile’ and the first. In addition to Europe and Asia, we’re working on deployments on multiple college campuses, medical campuses, theme parks, planned communities, and city centers here in the United States.”
The Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at the University of South Florida has just launched the Automated Vehicle Institute @ CUTR for which I served as interim managing director. The new institute recognizes automated vehicles as a “disruptive technology” with the potential to be as transformational as the Internet, changing the way industries conduct business, reshuffling the world’s economy, creating new business models and, unfortunately, leaving some traditional business models in the dust.
Several market forces are accelerating the development and roll out of AV technology. Here are just a few:
Young people are falling out of love with the automobile. In the effort to drive sales to Millennials, automakers worldwide are packing new cars with as much technology as possible, including the functionality of what DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4). In 2013 policy guidelines, NHTSA defines these vehicles as those “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip” during which the driver might provide destination or navigation input “but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip.”
Many AV experts predict that drivers will subscribe to transportation services rather than own cars, and urban centers will ban human drivers in favor of networked driverless taxies, vans, and buses that provide door-to-door service.
Steven Bayless, senior director with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, suggests that HOV lanes may become driverless lanes. “Managed lanes could also potentially provide a proving ground for more automation and cooperative concepts such as vehicle or truck platooning.”
The economics of vanpools is increasingly unsustainable. “There were 10,633 vanpools in the U.S. in 2010, and these expensive vans sat idly parked an average of 22.9 hours each day,” said Phil Winters, program director of CUTR’s director of transportation demand management, citing figures from the National Transit Database.
Nevada has approved regulations that spell out requirements for companies that want to test driverless cars, and California has passed legislation that requires its Department of Motor Vehicles to draft regulations for autonomous vehicles by January 2015.
Google’s self-driving cars have already logged more than half a million miles on U.S. roadways.
Fully automated and connected vehicles will double existing road capacity because transportation planners and engineers can allow for narrower lanes, increased speed, and shorter safe following distances among vehicles.
Impact on Public Transit
Understanding and adopting AV technology can deliver huge dividends for public transit in two important ways.
First, such knowledge can prevent costly missteps and false starts. In a recent interview, Paul Godsmark, co-founder and chief technology officer at the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre (CAVCOE), said, “Agencies are currently committing billions of dollars to infrastructure-intensive transit schemes that will not be operational until the 2020s, and yet their business models and amenity value could be undermined by AVs before they are even finished being built.”
Second, agencies that are nimble and quick to understand the opportunities can take the lead on new service and operational models. CUTR Executive Director Jason Bittner sums up his advice to public transit this way: “Transit as we know it—large buses serving dense corridors with little flexibility—is unlikely to exist in 20 years. Public transportation operators should seriously consider the business model that an automated fleet of smaller vehicles would provide.”
Denis Eirikis is co-owner and president of Clear Light Communications. He served as a consultant to the Florida Public Transportation Association, for which he devised the IM4Transit campaign, and he is a consultant on many other transportation initiatives.
This “Commentary” section features different points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes and views that affect public transportation.