A kind of college experience compressed into 2+ days is how the SmartDrivingCars Summit could be described. Led by the affable, gracious and entertaining host Professor Alain Kornhauser on the historic and beautiful grounds of Princeton University, this two-day event was a deep dive into all things dealing with autonomous transportation, as well as adjacent topics, such as land-use in a world where the need and the role for parking will change.
The SmartDrivingCars Summit drew a diverse group from academia, industry and government to discuss the challenges of transitioning to autonomous vehicles.
The surprise appearance of Vinn White, Senior Transportation Advisor in the Office of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, hinted at potential changes to transportation in the Garden State. His comments suggest an opening to a path that could bring autonomous taxis to augment New Jersey’s rail and buses; an approach advocated by Dr. Kornhauser for a long time.
And, just like AirBnB doesn’t own any hotel rooms, transit agencies may no longer need to own vehicles. Bern Grush described the Harmonize Mobility middleware as being able to decouple service objectives from service delivery (stay tuned for an interview with Bern as he explains how the service delivery part could transition to more of a variable cost).
Professor Kornhauser made a passionate plea to the attendees that applying automation on a shared basis is a critical step towards reducing or at least slowing the growth of negative externalities, such as congestion and pollution
Most importantly, automation and vehicle sharing is necessary to lower the cost of and increase access to mobility so that all may have the opportunities that are available today to those who have cars. Along these lines, there were a couple of presentations that suggested this sort of shared autonomous travel will increase GDP by increasing addressable markets for small businesses, as well as provide more job opportunities for those who have traditionally had high transportation costs.
Kornhauser described the shared vehicle experience as analogous to an elevator, as seen in this video:
The cities of Greenville, SC and Houston, TX are in various stages of shared, first-mile/last-mile pilot projects that will tie into regional feeder projects. In the case of Houston, they are embarking on a pilot project that would tie last-mile shuttles into what could be described as a “freeway within a freeway”, where eventually self-driving buses will provide relatively high-speed connections to Houston’s four business districts. The various interconnection points will be prime candidates for transit oriented development.
Shannon McDonald pointed out that the 3rd dimension (that is, air rights) offers opportunities for approaching development in new ways. Her Southern Illinois University students – working with San Jose State University and its Spartan Superway, elevated autonomous pod car network team – designed a passive, energy-neutral hotel concept that opened the street to more human-scale (walking, biking, etc.) mobility.
One question raised early in the conference is whether automation should be an augmentation or replacement for the human driver. How that question is answered may depend upon policy makers and their decisions on how to charge for road use and parking.
If the wrong policies are adopted, there could be negative public externalities (e.g. more congestion) which might be insignificant to the executive who gains back hours by being able to work in her mobile office, while people in non-autonomous cars simultaneously suffer longer commutes. Similarly, it was pointed out that single passenger ride share services have already been shown to increase congestion due to the number of “empty” rides (re-positioning), which could be similar in concept to the driverless car that circles the block, while its owner shops.
And, if (Waymo) Kornhauser’s Law (10X growth in autonomous vehicles every two years) turns out to be somewhat accurate, there could be a million autonomous vehicles on the road in a few years. Even though this would only represent a small share of cars on the road, it could have an outsize impact since the Waymo vehicles will most likely be shared and the impact on traffic and car sales would be greater than the traditional ownership model.
Conclusion – 2019 Refresher Course Required
Overall, there was great insight and thought-provoking questions at this two-day crash-course. But, with this fast-changing market, it is clear that the 2019 SmartDrivingCars Summit will be the perfect refresher course for participants to learn from and interact with other experts in the autonomous vehicle space.
In the meantime, stay tuned for the release of various Viodi-produced videos from the 2018 Summit.