How Will Public Transit Be Disrupted?

A couple of years ago, John Niles and I started writing, blogging, and speaking about getting ready for autonomous vehicles. We called this work, collectively, The End Of Driving in recognition of our certainty that technology would displace the driver just as the automobile had replaced the horse. We’re still certain of this. Then, as now, we were convinced that no one can forecast how this will unfold in any useful detail – that is, useful enough to write infrastructure plans or social policy. We took to describing the next quarter century as the most difficult transportation planning horizon ever faced by urban planners.

The prognostication ranged then, as it does still, from no more personal automobile ownership, to no more public transit to instant-and-perfect robo-cab within 2 minutes of a request, to a clean and perfect car for every garage. And with these would come green utopias of no accidents, no parking, no congestion, and info-cocooning on the way to work. Or maybe dystopias of sprawl, transportation inequity, increased congestion, and robots chauffeuring parent-free five-year-olds to ballet.

In the March 7th issue of Time magazine, Xerox Executive David Cummins, thinking about all the immediate, incremental changes, comes off as indifferent. “Cars parallel park themselves now. Cars speed up and slow down on their own already. Cars have all kinds of accident-avoidance technology. And you are going to have more and more and more of that introduced over the next three to five years. By the time that first car rolls off the factory line without a steering wheel, it’s not going to be that much of a shock. The collective response may be more of a shrug. As in, ‘It’s about time.’”

From the beginning, at EndOfDriving, we’ve thought about what kinds of social directions this change could take – or should take. We thought about invented futures rather than wait-and-see futures. We understood that the world is trending from one billion motorized vehicles in 2010 toward four billion by 2050, but we wondered if the implied quadrupling of motorized trips or kilometers to be demanded by 2050 could be provided – with the requisite sharing – by only one billion vehicles.

We imagined how magical it would be always to have a vehicle arrive on command and whisk us to wherever. And we wondered whether we could understand and overcome all the operational and social barriers that were implied. We noted that the fast-rising TNC (Transport Network Company) world of Uber and Lyft was not only wonderfully disruptive of the taxis many disdain, but it was also ushering in an ugly disruption: TNC’s cherry-pick the best taxi customers – young, well-groomed digerati – leaving poorer and disabled patrons as cast-offs for the now dying taxi industry.

Will transit survive disruption

We understood that driverless robo-fleets could erode the need for household ownership, but also for the city bus and that this would force rollbacks on massive municipal pension obligations if transit systems were to collapse.

We calculated that since vehicle populations take 20 years to double, and fleets take 15 years to turnover and that if error-free and affordable robotics were available optimistically in 10 years, it would take 40 years until the last driver was retired – by which time, of course, we’d have 4 billion extant vehicles to counter the promised advantages of robotic vehicles in the first place.

Since then the hype, both positive and negative, has grown in volume and confusion. Academic experts caution that reliable, full autonomy is at least 20 years away and pervasive, driver-out, autonomy, more like 40 or 50. Still lighter-headed commentators contemplate radical autonomous scenarios starting in 2020 and becoming pervasive in the following ten years, perhaps encouraged by the optimistic projections of automotive marketers. Thinking about nuanced social changes happens less often.

We are not questioning the ability of automotive technologists or even AI (Artificial Intelligence) practitioners; rather we are questioning urban and social readiness for many dozens of overlapping, concurrent and contradictory changes.

When writers weigh multiple aspects concurrently, the contradictions mount quickly. David Ticoll, University of Toronto, sees AVs (Autonomous Vehicles) mitigating congestion if combined with mass transit while at the same time AVs stimulate more use of cars. How will that push-pull combination work out?

“…factors that cause congestion – capacity bottlenecks, traffic incidents, poor signal timing, weather, construction, and uncertain travel times – can be reduced or mitigated by vehicle automation, especially when combined with public mass transit. At the same time, the accessibility and convenience of AVs is likely to stimulate greater use of cars and minibuses.” [Page 5]

As of 2016, there is no consensus whether the autonomous vehicle will enable better transit or no transit. There are some proponents for each forecast. But for most pundits the future transit world seems to be destined to be crushed no matter which of the most popular two scenarios prevail: pervasive robo-cabs or a renewed juggernaut of private household vehicles.

In any case, we are clear that transit will be disrupted. We are tentative on whether it will be disrupted in a way that lets transit managers evolve services and transform quickly to more effective formats. We are fearful that transit authorities will abdicate completely to the new private vehicles of the future and to the robo-fleets of the rising TNCs.

Urban leaders need to start preparing now for the decisions they will soon face.

Do you think your city will or should move to expand or reformat public transit with autonomous vehicle technology or do you think transit should be disrupted and left to history? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

TaaS-A-mazon: Transportation as a Service

Do we really understand what needs to happen to urban motorized transportation as it evolves further into Transportation as a Service (TaaS)? To deliver the Goldilocks world of tailored vehicles arriving within two or three minutes of demand we will need aggregation and matching services for large numbers of disparate, multi-owner fleets, far beyond what anyone, including Uber, provides today.

Many people see the household robotic vehicle replacing the current household vehicle. Some figure a reduction of 1.2 vehicles to one. Others project each household vehicle would be replaced by 1.2 robotic vehicles. Fundamentally these ratios represent a like-for-like trade, just without the steering wheel.

Other people think about the robotic taxi replacing the taxi and a robotic Uber replacing a human Uber driver. They willingly admit this might begin to nibble at transit – say 10 or 20 percent – but is still essentially a like-for-like trade, but with fewer drivers.

Of course Travis Kalanick sees a future driverless Uber replacing nearly all urban, automotive transportation. But even people hearing that do not really get it. Or believe it. It is like hearing the seas might rise by a meter and not really appreciating what that means.

Problem is, most people see the current modes – car, taxi, carshare, shuttle, bus – as just how transportation is meant to be divided up, as determined by a kind of DNA, or by the same imaginary book of rules that say bike-paths are anti-car. Some folks will admit some 15 percent shifts, but they do not see a total obliteration of taxi-car-bus-shuttle-carshare boundaries. They do not see that these modes just become different vehicle sizes or inter-mixable aggregations on appropriate routes from what would act as one massive common service.

Has iTunes and Amazon taught us nothing? People go now to Amazon and search for the product they want. People find that in addition to an Amazon warehouse full of products, there are thousands of other sellers hawking stuff there as well. Amazon is the marketing and pricing front end, the social hub for the buyers’ emails and “likes”, and the bank that escrows the money until the product is shipped.

Amazon sells trust and payment reliability more than it sells books or can openers. Many of us buy books there – including used ones – because we trust Amazon’s reputation management system. There are lots of resellers there, and most of us cannot remember if we ever used the same one twice. It’s all just Amazon.

How will people order a personal car trip in the future?

This suggests an analogous mobility aggregator. How might you order a personal car trip in 2035? First and foremost, you would have a profile reflecting normal daily use, for example:

Maximum fee: 40 cents per mile; Minimum fee: 25 cents per mile (to make sure not to get a beater); Preferred size: 2 seats (who wants to hold their groceries on their lap?); Ride sharing: no; Premium to meet schedule: yes; Maximum walk in meters: 200; Child seat: no; Cargo: yes; Cargo size: medium and Payment card: ****7221

Of course you could override these, but usually you would enter a destination time and place, then click to order and walk out the door for its arrival.

Importantly, a tailored vehicle that fits your immediate demand might be owned by a city agency, or perhaps by Uber, or by Cisco. As often as not it might belong to one of the several university, shopping or association affinity co-ops you happen to belong to.

When you order a trip to the airport, perhaps United Airlines will own the vehicle, since they co-manage a large autonomous shuttle fleet based at one of the emptied-out airport parking garages. Short trips might be assigned to one of several local operators who manage maintenance and cleaning of 30 to 100 robo-cars as a family business. Vehicles assigned for longer, intercity trips might be managed by the successor to Greyhound or Megabus, since those vehicles have different long-haul trip and maintenance properties.

But when you look at your smartphone, you are thinking only about the trip itself. You would care little about the brand of the vehicle or its provider and more about the provider’s current reputation on the app. Just as thinking only about the book you want from Amazon, you care little about the company that printed, sourced, picked, wrapped or shipped the book. Why would you care in 2035 whether the vehicle is forwarded from the municipality, Lyft or Wal-Mart, as long as you expect to be satisfied with the trip.

Could it be that Amazon has not announced an autonomous vehicle because they intend to become TaaS-A-mazon – a clearing house for everything with a brain on wheels?

One concern this disruptive threat implies is for progressive communities to find a way to protect transportation equity. We might not all be able to buy from Amazon, but we will all need to get somewhere. If transit agencies just wait this out, their services will be disrupted, ridership will drop and subsidies will become ever steeper for the remaining users – and those users will be the ones that could not make the switch. Commercial TaaS fleet operators would have no motivation to subsidize those riders, and neither would a TaaS-A-mazon.

Do you rely on online goods and services aggregators to initiate purchases for things such as books, hotels and vacations? Do you trust them? Would you prefer this for TaaS rather than directly joining and ordering from Zipcar, car2go, Lyft, etc.?

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

What Gartner Teaches Us About the Autonomous Vehicle

Every year Gartner Inc., an information technology advisory, publishes its Emerging Technology Hype Cycle. This construction arranges emerging technologies on a time spectrum of five phases from “Innovation Trigger” to the “Plateau of Productivity”. Gartner is a more telling seer than most for the progress of robotic vehicle technology.

© Gartner, Inc.

The Autonomous Vehicle first appeared on Gartner’s 2010 Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle about 40 percent of the way up the Positive Hype slope toward the Peak of Inflated Expectations. You may recall that in 2010 self-driving hype was all about Sebastian Thrun winning the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) challenge, retellings of the General Motors exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, and how many thousands of lives robotic vehicles could save since most accidents are caused by human error.

While unaccountably skipping 2011, from 2012 to 2014 Gartner placed the Autonomous Vehicle on the Positive Hype slope at about 55 percent, 60 percent and 90 percent respectively as it climbed toward the Peak of Expectations, which it reached in July 2015.

During its 2011 absence from the Cycle, Gartner’s prediction about the Autonomous Vehicle went from “more than ten years from mainstream adoption” in 2010 to “Plateau of Productivity will be reached in 5 to 10 years”, where it remained unchanged for four years. A notable advance in 24 months.

The Trough of Disillusionment: The Autonomous Vehicle

A lot of excitement (and hype) has indeed built since 2010, but as with all technologies studied by Gartner, the Autonomous Vehicle is now inescapably poised to fall to the Trough of Disillusionment and recover on the Slope of Enlightenment before it reaches the Plateau of Productivity sometime after 2020.

The impending slide through Negative Hype and into the Trough of Disillusionment has started. It turns out that the presumed, slow feature creep through 20 or 30 lucrative years of advanced driver assistance systems to eventually reach widespread uptake of SAE’s (Society of Automotive Engineers) level five autonomy creates several intermediate barriers.

One of these many barriers is that humans generally come to rely on assistive technologies very quickly and incautiously. The reliability with which drivers will remain attentive while using intermediate levels of semi-autonomy, or be able to rapidly re-focus their attention in the event the vehicle requests oversight is very challenging. Driving becomes the distraction.

Near term consumer access to autonomous vehicles implies either mixing them with non-autonomous ones on the same roadway, setting up separate lanes and safe-havens at great expense, or as Google (and now reportedly, Ford) has elected, jumping immediately to fully autonomous, level 5 vehicles skipping the intermediate levels altogether.

Of course fully autonomous vehicles would suffer severe access limitations in their first decade or so. The owner of an autonomous vehicle would be able to use it only on fully qualified lanes and areas which would not likely appear quickly as the infrastructure funding crisis grinds on. Access-anxiety would be far worse than the range-anxiety that has afflicted early EV (Electric Vehicle) adoption.

© Gartner, Inc.

The Slope of Enlightenment: The Autonomous Vehicle

Happily, there is a solution to this. Just as the mounting number of barriers to the near term household market for fully autonomous vehicles is becoming apparent, the application of robotic vehicles to public transit is gathering interest.

The early use of robotics for transit applications on constrained routes and limited networks via government-franchised, private investment could address many of the obvious barriers to early, access-limited, self-driving vehicles in the driveways of household consumers.

The path to the frequently predicted smart urban future of any-time, on-call, mobility on demand will be easier to traverse if this route is taken. This is how the Plateau of Productivity for autonomous vehicles could indeed be reached in the 5 to 10 years that Gartner predicts.

But first, more urban leaders need to stop dithering in the face of the AV technology hype and step up to implementing what is feasible right now.

What do you think about Gartner’s prediction? Do you think autonomous vehicles could reach production stage within the next 5 to 10 years? Share your opinions in the comment section.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Transit Leap: What Autonomous Vehicles Can Do for Transit

Massive fleets of shared autonomous vehicles will be realized more quickly by starting now with constrained geographic applications rather than focusing on SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) levels of increasing robotic capability and accommodating partially-robotic vehicles one-customer-at-a-time.

Growing numbers of people following autonomous vehicle (AV) development infer that the days of the unreliable human driver are numbered. They debate how and when, but the number of doubters declines.

Once pervasive, AVs could bring huge benefits to cities and society, as long as their sheer volume does not overwhelm urban road space. Unfortunately, high volumes are the likely default.

A subset of AV enthusiasts sees potential for massive fleets of shared vehicles – robo-taxis, robo-shuttles, and the like. They expect this to virtually extinguish demand for personally-owned vehicles.

Recently, a half-dozen computer simulations suggest that ubiquitous, shared robotic vehicles could provide more cost-effective, universal, and equitable mobility than the current reliance on privately-owned vehicles. Vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT) would drop, but the incessant human demand for motorized mobility expressed as personal kilometers traveled (PKT) would continue to grow. This emerging path of development is preferable, but much work over multiple decades is needed to realize this.

Sharing is not the default mode of transportation

Some observers assume that virtually everyone would choose or even prefer to share instead of owning, and even see a moderation in PKT growth. Current research from the CityMobil2 group is a notable and balanced exception. While they see a modest shift in portions of people sharing vs. owning, they do see a rise in PKT.

The considerable optimism expressed by most sharing-economy observers is based on early trends (hovering well below 1 percent in the total VKT equation) among young, single, urban digerati in developed countries along with a dose of the commonsense rationality that behavioral economists caution against.

Only a tiny fraction of automobility observers think about the historical 20-year doubling time of the worldwide automobile population. People such as Dan Sperling, Deborah Gordon (Two Billion Cars), and Bill Ford Jr. are among these.

Shared vehicle fleets could indeed play a significant role – far above 1 percent – in reducing the number of vehicles needed to provide the equivalent PKT for this quadrupling of VKT. Planners need to begin the hard work of figuring how to arrange those fleets so that the required world population of extant motor vehicles 40 years from now will not be four times the size of our current fleet.

The three key issues – robo-driving, shared fleets, and VKT quadrupling – deserve equal time. Planners need to look beyond the current fascination with Feature Creep in automotive robotics, the untested assumption that drivers will all become natural sharers, and the near silence regarding a future where PKT demand manifested as VKT could readily overwhelm robotic technology including any sharing.

Transit Leap: A planned future for autonomous vehicles

In contrast, planners can start an immediate public-private community focus on ways to initialize and nurture the growth of Transportation as a Service (TaaS). Pioneers at CityMobil2 and the associated companies supplying practical lite-transit vehicles to these trials are showing the way.

The Transit Leap paradigm of gradual deployment is illustrated in the figure. AV-based service networks are installed and managed for constrained public applications, representing advancements in public transit.

Starting with short, closed-loop applications, moving to on-demand branched-routing applications, then robo-vehicle go-anywhere networks (taxis, vans, mini-buses) in ever-widening urban geographies would provide for gradually expanding reach for travelers. Over a few decades, complete urban regions would be serviced. Eventually, fleet operations would saturate megaregions, and then entire nations over the next 30 to 40 years.

Intentional future of sustainable transportation

Intentionally seeking public benefit via strong community action toward deliberately developed, shared autonomous fleets is better for all three dimensions of sustainability. Transportation thought leaders must avoid assuming or hoping the default path of encouraging and regulating increasingly-automated vehicles one-customer-at-a-time will undergo a miraculous, entrepreneurial transition to a path of widespread sharing.

Partnerships for Transit Leap need to be started now.

What do you think about the concept of Transit Leap? Would you prefer autonomous shared fleets or household autonomous vehicles? Share your opinions in the comment section.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.