A future where driverless cars are roaming city streets may be closer than you think. Quickly moving past test and pilot phases, autonomous vehicles are now hitting the road in business parks and on limited fixed routes, bringing the promise of increased safety, reduced emissions and the potential for streamlined public transportation.
Many hurdles must be overcome before this new mode of transport can deliver real efficiencies in the movement of people and goods, and like other smart city initiatives, must be fully integrated with other city systems. Self-driving cars, most of which are EVs, also will require charging infrastructure and coordination with utilities.
Findings from the 2018 Strategic Directions: Smart Cities & Utilities Report survey reveal that while half of municipalities and smart service providers believe that autonomous vehicles will have a transformational impact on cities around the world, they still are widely unsure of how these projects will scale. In fact, 30 percent of survey respondents
indicated that they are not yet familiar with autonomous vehicles (Figure 1).
This could mean that despite the buzz around this new transportation option, many city officials and constituents alike are unsure about the requirements needed to reap the benefits of this burgeoning technology.
Figure 1. How familiar is your organization with autonomous vehicles? (Select one option.)
Early Driverless Applications
There are several applications in which autonomous vehicles can be deployed. Some of the initial uses being tested include:
Self-Driving, On-Demand Ride Services: Popular ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft already are incorporating autonomous vehicles into their fleets in select cities such as Boston and Pittsburgh. This service is poised to expand with Uber’s recent order of 24,000 autonomous vehicles from Volvo and Lyft’s partnership with self-driving technology leader, Waymo. Lyft co-founder John Zimmer has even predicted that most of its fleet would be self-driving within five years. Meanwhile, General Motors’ $500 million investment in Cruise Automation and dozens of other technology partnerships and investments around the world convey that this application may be the most competitive area to watch.
Streamlined Public Transit: Autonomous buses and trains that utilize remote sensors and automation could augment or replace current transit systems for safer and more efficient operations. Autonomous public transit systems can help take more personal vehicles off the road, and reduce emissions and traffic accidents.
Expanded First Mile/Last Mile Options: Shared, autonomous shuttles may offer a convenient, efficient and cost-effective way to transport people between public transit stops and their ultimate destinations. Solving this vexing first mile/last mile challenge would increase public transit usage, reduce traffic congestion and emissions, and alleviate the need for additional transit station parking.
Increased Transportation Access for Senior Citizens: According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, nearly 16 million citizens who are 65 or older live in communities where public transportation is poor or nonexistent. For those typically using taxi services on a regular basis, autonomous vehicles could provide more economical and reliable mobility services for an aging population.
Increased Transportation for Disabled Individuals: A report titled “Self-Driving Cars: The Impact on People with Disabilities,” conducted by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), found that increased use of driverless vehicles could save up to $19 billion annually in healthcare costs. Public transportation options cannot always accommodate disabled riders, and dedicated para-transit systems can be costly.
Optimized Movement of Goods: The impact of autonomous vehicles on the long-haul shipment of goods also is making headlines. Tesla recently unveiled its electric semi-truck with autonomous features and DHL has announced plans to start testing autonomous delivery vehicles this year. Regardless of the application, deploying autonomous vehicles en masse will require end-to-end planning. Collaboration with public transportation agencies, utilities and regulatory bodies will be critical.
State Policies Enable But Also Create Barriers For AVs
When it comes to the true logistics behind deploying these programs, state and federal policies will dictate what each city and community can put on the road. State and federal politics were a huge factor in the early boom in renewable energy five to seven years ago. Municipalities are aware of this, with 38 percent responding that policy was the most influential factor in pursuing autonomous vehicle initiatives (Figure 2).
Policies also are directly linked to funding, and year after year budget constraints are cited as the top hurdle in the Black & Veatch survey to implementing smart city initiatives. To help garner funding, states are publicizing their intent to welcome technology vendors looking for driverless car test sites. Arizona, California and Michigan are
among states partnering with automakers, vying to be the first to successfully roll out an autonomous vehicle program. These high-visibility test programs can sometimes attract additional funding through federal grants and private investments.
In winning the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, Columbus, Ohio, received $40 million to advance their smart city initiatives. The city also received an additional $10 million from Vulcan Inc., specifically dedicated to electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Following Vulcan’s lead, other private-sector companies also seeing
the potential long-term economic growth impacts of such initiatives have helped expand the pool of funds to nearly $500 million.
Figure 2. Rank the following factors that will influence your organization’s pursuit of autonomous vehicle initiatives.
According to a recent study by RAND Corp., more than 90 percent of car accidents are caused by human error. The RAND study found that introducing autonomous vehicles sooner, rather than later when the technology is more proven, could already start reducing accident-related fatalities. Researchers found that “introducing autonomous vehicles when they are just better than human drivers — as opposed to nearly perfect — could save hundreds of thousands of lives over 30 years.”
While reducing car accidents is one of the leading catalysts for implementing programs, policymakers at the state and federal levels remain uncertain about how safe it is to operate autonomous vehicles.
Driverless Program Leaders
Deploying autonomous vehicles within a community could look different depending on chosen applications, citizens’ needs and available or developing infrastructure. Some states are leading the charge, and how they plan, test and begin implementation should be closely watched to capture early lessons.
In Michigan, driverless cars are being tested at Mcity, a 32-acre portion of the University of Michigan where “industry, government, and academia come together to improve transportation safety, sustainability, and accessibility for the benefit of society.” Gov. Rick Snyder enacted a number of regulations in December 2016 that accommodate testing, use and sales of driverless cars at sites like Mcity. These laws have propelled the state to be one of the most welcoming for testing self-driving vehicles.
A new service on the Mcity campus transports students, faculty and staff in two fully automated, 15 passenger, all-electric shuttles manufactured by the French company NAVYA. The shuttles operate on a nonstop two-mile route between the Lurie Engineering Center and the university’s North Campus Research Complex. The service
will augment the current campus bus system and will test mapping technology, driving accuracy and citizen interactions.
In Arizona, Waymo, Uber, General Motors, Ford and Intel all are testing autonomous technology, and Gov. Doug Ducey has been attracting these companies with favorable policies as part of the state’s economic development strategy. In California, the City of Chula Vista is committed to opening all of its streets as an autonomous vehicle proving ground.
An aggressive crackdown on vehicles that emit toxic fumes is driving EV deployment on a large scale in London. In an effort to improve air quality and public safety, drivers of older, polluting vehicles now have to pay a daily “T-charge” to drive in central London. Mayor Sadiq Khan has been a strong proponent of lowering emissions and is preparing to launch an “ultra-low emissions zone” by April 2019.
London cab company Addison Lee is leading a government-backed effort into driverless car research, with partners such as Ford, to explore the potential for unmanned vehicles and ridesharing services. Use of autonomous vehicles could considerably reduce traffic in the densely populated city, further reducing air pollution.
Is the Driverless Future Nigh?
So what will a city with fewer human drivers on the road actually look like? Generally speaking, many believe that autonomous vehicles will drastically change transportation, but public officials and technology vendors do not seem to agree about when. Government and municipality respondents are evenly split in their views of the future impacts of driverless programs. Conversely, smart service providers appear to be more certain, with 68 percent believing that these new transportation options will have long-term impacts around the world (Figure 3). This means there is still much work to be done to integrate autonomous vehicles into the smart city landscape.
If and when autonomous vehicles are deployed at scale, ramifications could include a complete reworking of streets and public transit routes and uses; evolving energy demands; and conversions of parking lots and garages that may no longer be needed. Developers will need to think about the future to enable sustainable growth and meet
emissions reduction, public health and clean energy goals. Best practices from pilot projects are already showcasing how collaboration with regulators, utilities and citizens is critical to successfully deploying the unmanned transportation that could transform how we move the people and goods and help communities thrive.