We are at a watershed moment when it comes to our transportation system. Mobility technology — particularly autonomous vehicles (AVs) — has been advancing at a tremendous pace. While our society is by and large still assessing the viability of this technology, how to apply it safely and where it might have the most impact, there is little doubt AVs will play a significant role in the future.
Agencies and cities that get ahead of the game and plan early will harness AVs for the benefit of their customers and their community. Those that sit on the sidelines and watch as the technology rolls out, will not only risk missing an opportunity for improved service, but also be unprepared for new challenges that surface over time. Some agencies have done well to get ahead of things, exploring AV options and running pilots — while some have even committed to integrating AVs into their system long term.
Where an agency is on the AV learning curve now will depend on its geography, resources, size, and service needs. That said, it is something every agency needs to be thinking about. Here are four questions every transit agency should be asking itself now, so that it can start planning an AV-ready future.
How could autonomous vehicles improve customer experience?
Transit is about providing an efficient, affordable mobility option to people of all walks of life. It should offer independence and safe passage throughout the community that gives access to employment, commerce, and leisure.
Through that lens, there are numerous ways integrating AVs could help improve the customer experience. Firstly, you might be able to provide a service where there wasn’t one before. Small-scale shuttles that don’t depend on driver shifts can be deployed to less dense areas, designed to bring more people to the main arteries of the transit system. This is a game-changer for so many people who may live beyond the first mile-last-mile scenario.
The flexibility of service offered by AVs is also something to consider. For shift workers, or those not working nine-to-five schedules, living outside of a main service area pretty much eliminates transit as an option. AV shuttles can be programmed to provide on-demand service 24/7 — again, not dependent on driver schedules. They can be deployed to maximize both timing and passenger pick-up efficiency.
Many AVs are designed to be fully accessible for those with mobility issues. And they are electric, which is both non-polluting and quieter. Adding AVs to the fleet will be about providing people with more independence and a pleasant experience when using transit. I generally tell people that the top long-term ROI factor for AVs is going to be the customer experience.
But don’t just take my word for it — start asking the community. The most successful AV projects will have buy-in from the end users of the transit system. By giving them a voice, you will end up with something people in the community can get behind.
How well do we understand the technology?
In the last five years, the number of commercial AV companies has dramatically increased, with more coming to market every month. Since AV capability is constantly evolving, assessing, and understanding your community’s challenges, goals, and objectives, it allows you to look for the best match between your needs and the capabilities each solution offers — and could offer in the future.
It is also important to understand the procurement process that will enable AV acquisition within your organization. On the manufacturer side, there are two main acquisition models available: own/operate or subscribe. Owners/operators have, or will develop, the infrastructure to maintain the vehicle fleet. Subscribers act more as program managers and vendors handle many daily needs. This also raises questions of how to separate internal roles, and where to seek out third-party support.
Technology needs don’t stop with the vehicle. It is important to understand what road and digital infrastructure is needed to support deployment. For example, where are vehicles stored, and what is the charging plan? It will also be important to formulate a data management plan that delivers critical insights and supports the decision-making process.
As you embark on your journey assessing the different technology options, seeking outside counsel on technology is certainly advisable, as is interviewing potential technology partners. Being able to make “apples-to-apples” comparisons will help the decision-making process and provide a better understanding of what is available in the marketplace.
What do we know about the state of AV regulations?
When Secretary Buttigieg was confirmed as Transportation Secretary, he stated that he would like the federal government to be a leader in ensuring the deployment of AVs. Specifically, he said: “[AV technology] is advancing quickly and has the potential to be transformative, but in a lot of ways, policy hasn’t kept up.”
While there is reason to believe the federal government will start taking a more active role in AV regulations, we don’t yet have unified federal standards. In the absence of federal standards, some states have tried to solve the policy and regulatory challenges before us. We recently helped the State of Vermont finalize a framework for AV testing and write accompanying guidelines, looking at challenging weather, non-paved roads, and a rural population. Given these factors, Vermont is an interesting place to look at regulatory frameworks, as it is a good testing ground to see how and where AVs can operate successfully and reliably.
Some factors states are looking at closely are how to modernize insurance and liability partnership models, assessing the right level of data reporting, and the relationship between law enforcement and local coordination. Each transit agency should be familiar with the policy development status in their own state and look to have a seat at the table in those discussions where appropriate.
How can we ensure safety is considered at every turn?
As with any technological advancement, moving forward will not be possible without winning the public’s trust. Ensuring safety is at the heart of every AV discussion will be a key ingredient in gaining that trust.
Of course, we can give safety ratings to different vehicle models, just like cars today. But with AVs, we should be taking a wider view of safety to include the environment in which the vehicle operates: the interaction with other road users, the redundancy in the localization of the vehicle, how the vehicle is maintained, and the connectivity between the vehicle and its infrastructure. These will be important elements in taking a more holistic view of safety.
Once we get to the operations phase, a holistic assessment entails multiple forms of safety checks. We use best practices grounded in aviation safety success to ensure the AV is ready for daily operations. That includes completing and digitally recording checklists before, during, and after operations, much like commercial pilots. Monitoring the data on every trip an AV makes and using that data to feed a constant cycle of improving performance.
Holistic assessments of AV operations introduce another dimension: what is the safety culture within the organization? How do we prioritize safety in operations, and what about safety training programs? Can AV performance fit into existing frameworks, or do they need to be expanded? What’s the process for tracking and acting on safety performance? Is every person in the organization committed to improving safety?
Defining safety and communicating about the process is an opportunity to build trust and maintain commitment to an enhanced safety culture.
Building a roadmap for AV readiness
For any AV project or program to be successful, replicable, scalable, flexible, and trackable, a business case should be developed. A vision provides the foundation upon which to build this case, as well as to demonstrate economic feasibility and sustainability. That cohesive vision is the catalyst to kicking off the planning process, and these four questions help start out on the right track.
AV technology is complex but adopting it doesn’t have to be. Having that strong vision and thorough planning is not necessarily a difficult process, but it requires careful consideration. That careful consideration is what will help us harness this amazing technology to provide a safe, equitable, productive, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation.
Marie-France Laurin is Director of Business Development with Stantec GenerationAV™.