The What-How-and Why of Autonomous Vehicles in Public Transportation
An autonomous vehicle (AV) is one that can sense its surroundings and navigate without human input. AVs detect their environment and create detailed maps by using various technologies, including cameras, machine learning, and light detection and radar (LIDAR). Science is probably still not that far away from producing fully self-driving cars that can travel anywhere and handle any situation, and we are incrementally approaching that future. Single occupancy vehicles are assuming greater control, in the form of “driver assistance” technology. For example, Cadillac now offers Super Cruise technology to handle highway driving on some vehicle models. Humans must remain alert and prepared to resume control of the vehicle for more complicated maneuvers. We call this Level 3 Automation, and is far from the full driverless future we are thinking of.
Who is investing in or deploying Autonomous Vehicles?
There are many private companies invested in or developing driverless technology. Virtually every significant automaker from General Motors to Toyota to Tesla is pursuing the technology for AVs. Ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber are also getting in on the action. Tech companies like Intel, IBM, Apple, and Waymo (formerly the Google self-driving car project) are all racing to make the AV fantasy a reality. With scant federal laws governing the testing of new AV technology, governments must iron out the kinks of regulating AVs while building the infrastructure to support them, including roadways with sensors.
What role do AV’s have in public transit?
Public transit is getting in the game with pilots running in California, Florida, and throughout Europe. Agencies, know revenue may drop as commuters start using private AVs instead of public transit. However, this also presents an opportunity for public transit agencies to partner with private sector transportation companies to deploy vehicles of their own. Agencies can leverage the tech advancements of private companies to expand their regional coverage and make transportation more accessible to the public. For example, public transit agencies can partner with private ride-sharing companies to solve the first-mile/last mile-dilemma with AVs and thereby eliminate the need for parking lots at transit stations.
Driverless shuttles operating in contained environments like campuses, airports, and office parks can enhance public transit networks. They are already available in some locations, and many pilot programs are underway around the world. In Singapore, visitors to Gardens by the Bay tour the botanical gardens on driverless shuttles provided by EasyMile. EasyMile’s driverless shuttles also transported commuters between two Parisian train stations for a few demo months. The first driverless shuttle bus in California made history in March 2018, when it pulled onto a public street in San Ramon. In Arlington, Texas, riders can cruise around Globe Life Park and AT&T Stadium on Milo, an autonomous shuttle.
So, what’s next?
Though it is impossible to predict precisely all the different ways that AVs will revolutionize our lives, analysts anticipate a few specific pros and cons. AVs are expected to increase safety while reducing insurance and healthcare costs associated with accident recovery. Over 90 percent of car accidents that occur today are the result of human error, and AVs could eliminate over 30,000 road fatalities annually in the U.S. alone. They will also improve mobility for the elderly and disabled, who have to rely on public transportation or travel assistance. AVs have the potential to increase society’s productivity by reducing traffic congestion, fuel consumption, and travel time. They can reduce needs for parking on streets and in lots, free up that land for other uses, and possibly reduce real estate costs. Analysts predict that the AV industry will create jobs in design, development, and infrastructure.
But there’s a catch right?
All of these advances come with a price. Even as AVs create jobs, their implementation may reduce employment for drivers and vehicular support services, like mechanics and fuel stations. As companies continue to refine AV technology, security concerns, glitches, and equipment failures are barriers to widespread dissemination of driverless transportation. Cost is an obstacle that may keep AV technology out of the hands of the masses; at least initially the price tag will probably be out of reach for many. This means that there will still be drivers on the road in conventional automobiles during the transition to AVs. Thus it is questionable how long it will take to reduce traffic in cities and reach that bright, driverless future we all think about, but Public Transit can truly lead the way.