The Drive to Autonomous Shuttles

Author: Nikki Greenberg | 1 July 2021 | Real Estate of the Future Blog

Image courtesy of EasyMile

As I pass by my fellow commuters in the mornings on their way to their office, children’s schools or to run errands, I think about how traffic should today be redundant. There is masterful technology that calculates optimized routes for vehicles to follow, smart city technology that sequences traffic lights, plus flexible working and schooling should mean that not everyone needs to be heading to the same place at the same time. 2020 saw an unprecedented move towards de-urbanization as many people left the cities and moved towards suburbia (ref.) with the promise of larger homes, outdoor gardens, and more. And yet, in 2021, both urbanites and suburbanites are still faced with terrible traffic. As populations rise, built-environment density increases, and more people return to in-person work and school with set hours, traffic and its associated inconveniences, frustrations and carbon emissions will continue on its ascendancy, unless the issue is tackled from multiple fronts.

Traffic reduction will take a layering of measures by the public and private sectors, in both urban and suburban locales. In 2017 the average car trip in the US was 5.95 miles (ref.). Many of these trips could have been replaced by shared transportation if there were to be a suitable solution for short distance (‘last mile’) transportation that is convenient, reliable, low cost, and an enjoyable experience. An interesting part of the solution, is through the deployment of autonomous shuttles, starting with private streets in campuses and masterplanned communities.

What is an autonomous shuttle?

An autonomous (or ‘driverless’) shuttle is a vehicle that travels along predetermined, learned paths at speeds below 50km/hr. Powered by electricity, they are typically designed to carry 12 passengers over short distances, and are considered to be effective short last mile solutions either end of public transport or longer-haul journeys. By collecting a great amount of data via sensors, the vehicles are constantly learning how to be increasingly efficient, safe and effective. As they do not require fixed infrastructure in the same way that a train or tram might, they are far faster to deploy and provides new services where there may not have been such transport previously.

An efficient connection to hubs

The majority of routes travelled are to the same destinations, be it parents taking their kids to a school, stopping at a mall, grabbing a bite to eat, or going to an office. While public transportation systems are most efficient over distances connecting node-to-node by trains, it is the shorter distances where they struggle to find efficiencies, and as a result, time and again the system is faced by service reductions due to budgetary constraints (ref.). Too often commuters experience the frustration of busses running behind schedule, only to find it packed to the brim when it arrives, making for an unreliable, inconvenient and uncomfortable journey.

By contrast, as autonomous shuttles collect data, they can use this information to optimize for capacity and route, both ahead of time, and in real time. If there are more people waiting to catch a ride, additional vehicles can be deployed and the subsequent schedule update can be shared with riders in real time, along with helpful data such as wait times, occupancy, or if there’s another route that may better serve their needs that day. Preferencing smart, autonomous shuttles connecting to public transportation hubs also holds an advantage over park-and-ride which relies on fixed parking infrastructure that is expensive to build and has inflexible capacity (ref.).

Creating more places to play

Other than when they are charging, autonomous vehicles can be in constant motion and put to use. The average car today in the US is parked for 95% of the time (ref.) while autonomous shuttles can be in operation far more of the time. As more private cars are removed from the roads to be replaced by shared autonomous shuttles that are hardly ever at a standstill, there will be a reduced need for parking spaces at malls, homes, schools, offices, in the streets and more. These spaces that were previously dedicated to parking can thus be put to other uses. Just imagine how energized streets would be with parking repurposed for other uses such as outdoor dining, markets and playgrounds. In Brooklyn, the infamous Smorgasburg weekend food market is held at such a vacant lot, and in Manhattan streets became littered with innovative outdoor dining in place of parking lots last summer, both invigorating the public space by opening it up to people instead of cars.

Flexible & fast implementation

Public transportation systems take a long time to plan and to implement, often with multiple changes in governments in-between. Transport planners are charged with the difficult task of producing prediction and insights on the future needs of locations and their populations based on historical data. Strategic visions and transportation plans for important infrastructure such as trains and trams are mapped out decades in advance in order to provide the backbone of future development plans. The complexity and bureaucracy involved in transportation planning, resultants in a lack of flexibility with an inability to respond to societal changes quickly while plans are being made, and even more so, once the infrastructure has been built. By contrast, as autonomous shuttles don’t need fixed infrastructure such as depots and tracks, it is nimble and can be deployed relatively quickly in response to changes and current needs. In addition to being able to be deployed instantaneously, they can also serve to supplement driver schedules for undesirable after-hours, weekend and public holiday shifts.

The accessibility advantages

A few years back, a good friend told me how on a visit Sydney with his new born baby, he struggled to get around the city as Ubers and taxis seldom carry the carseats that are required for infants. As he told me of his frustrations trying to get places with a stroller, I could only imagine how much more difficult it would be for people in wheelchairs, when hardly any vehicles are adequately equipped. EasyMile, an innovative driverless vehicle solution, built-in an accessibility advantage by having wheelchair ramp in every one of their shuttle. In addition to the ramp, as the vehicles routes can be manually set and adjusted, they can even be programmed to provide door-to-door services for their passengers. Just imagine a seniors community where residents are conveniently picked up from their homes to be safely dropped at their medical appointments because the vehicle knows where they are going from and to.

In Summary

I am excited by the possibilities that autonomous shuttles can bring in addressing traffic, emissions, accessibility and convenience factors. While the technology is still being tested for approvals on public roads, there are numerous case-studies of successful deployments in private communities around the globe. The drive to increasing adoption of autonomous shuttles is an element which brings with it a myriad of advantages, leading the drive towards better, more sustainable communities.

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