Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment Electric Vehicles Smart Driving Car Summit

What’s the Vision for the Smart Driving Future?

Start with the end in mind, to parrot Stephen Covey, was a recurring theme of the inaugural panel of the 4th annual Smart Driving Car Summit. Led by moderator Jim Atkinson, CEO of Guinness Atkinson Asset Management, Inc., and the president of SmartETFs and the Guinness Atkinson Funds, the panelists repeatedly discussed an overarching vision that leads to better mobility that improves the quality of life for everyone. As futurist and innovation advisor, Chunka Mui put it, “we need to have a larger vision that just doesn’t solve problems, but creates a greater good.”

An image of Olli, a prototypical next generation vehicle that takes advantage of the design freedom offered made possible with autonomous vehicle technology.
Local Motor’s Olli at the 3rd Annual Smart Driving Car Summit

To paraphrase the vision of panelist Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, the end-game should be to provide freedom of movement and economic opportunity for everyone in a sustainable fashion. Her thoughts are spelled out in more detail on the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities website. Autonomous mobility is just one element of a multimodal transportation system that needs to be closely intertwined with the development of cities, according to the ten principles, which have been endorsed by hundreds of public and private entities, worldwide.

That vision includes mobility at a much lower cost than today. Jim Atkinson suggested that shared autonomous can bring down the cost of transportation from roughly $1 to $0.20 per mile. SAFE Founder, President, and CEO, Robbie Diamond, estimates the improved freedom of movement enabled by this cost reduction would amount to an $800B boost in economic output.

When Will We Get There? #

From a commercial point of view, we are still early in the autonomous vehicle movement, as evidenced by futurist and innovation advisor, Chunka Mui. Mui estimates that the technology is 95% where it needs to be, but only at 5% of where it needs to be to fit in with the larger transportation systems.

UC Davis Professor and California Air Board member, Daniel Sperling, suggests that the marker for when autonomous mobility has commercial acceptance is when operators remove the safety driver. That will be the point when the operators feel confident enough to assume liability.

Diamond warns that policymakers and regulators need to be careful about pre-regulation prior to a commercial market and argues that a permissive environment will spur innovation. He emphasizes that regulators will have to get the incentives right when pricing externalities. The cost per mile isn’t the only metric people look at when viewing the total utility of a car (e.g. using them as rolling storage containers or, in California, as shelter)¹.

Chase has shifted her thoughts on regulations specific to autonomous vehicles and believes that policymakers need to target the root causes of the negative externalities (e.g. pollution, health, congestion, etc.) of moving people, regardless of transport mode or underlying technology. This means charging commensurate with the impact of a given solution. It also means investing in infrastructure to support multiple modes of transportation (e.g. walking, biking, e-scooters, etc.).

One of the outstanding characteristics of the SmartDrivingCar Summit is the audience interaction. The virtual version of the event was no different as several audience members had some thought-provoking comments, including Compass Transportation and Technology, Inc. President, Richard Mudge. From his previous work examining disruptive technologies, Mudge found that the positive externalities are often underestimated. He believes that autonomous mobility has the chance to stimulate economic growth. He sees the risk as over-regulating problems that may no longer exist.

The Future’s so Bright…. #

A toy Proterra bus at the Proterra headquarters.
Is Part of the Future, Electric, Autonomous BRT

Chase points to some of the potential benefits of shared autonomy, which include improved access to mobility compared to existing approaches, as well as more land available in cities for housing and public spaces. An added potential benefit of shared autonomous vehicles is lower overall resource usage through the increased utilization of each vehicle.

Chase points to a different role of transit agencies; one that is more of a mobility enabler when she wrote in the chat.

“Transit agencies might be coordinators of fleets. Or maybe they just give mobility wallets with money to those who need it and private sector companies do the fulfillment.”

An early example of such partnerships is what Via has done with public agencies to provide first/last-mile transportation to reach places not accessible by traditional public transit. Chase calls automated Bus Rapid transit a low-hanging fruit application for the technology (examples are provided in the comment section of this article which advocates for a trunk-autonomous feeder approach to transit).

The politics of these simple changes often get in the way of trying new things. Sperling provides a recent example of how, in the latest stimulus package, Congress is bailing out transit without requiring conditions to improve their operations. He indicates there needs to be transportation funding reform.

Tu Simple on display at CES2018.
Tu Simple on display at CES2018.

Diamond is optimistic, despite the difficult path ahead. SAFE saw long ago that autonomous vehicles would lead to faster electrification and a bigger impact on transportation, as compared to electrifying traditional cars. He believes there are plenty of geofenced applications that will have an impact prior to a shared autonomous future.

Mui is bullish on one of these geofenced applications, commercial transportation services, such as point-to-point long-haul trucking. Sperling is optimistic that the shared vehicle economy will create new jobs, as it will essentially replace the labor of what people do for free (be a driver, car owner) with software, hardware, and the associated human support team.

Paint the Vision #

Sperling loves the 10 to 20-year vision for the future of autonomous mobility and what it could bring. His concern is navigating the near-term noise that results from so many competing interests. Sperling cites the challenge is to align the politics, policies, and technology improvements to chart a path cut through the noise to the vision. Without the right policies, Sperling suggests that the shared autonomous vision might not be reached.

Diamond suggests that the government’s role is to provide a roadmap, guarantee, and provide the right incentives. It must do so in such a way that it “allows the innovators to innovate.” Along the way, it is important to break down the silos between various interests, whether those interests are safety, protection of the environment, job loss, etc.

Mui says a powerful and holistic long-term vision that speaks to society and rises above partisan lines is necessary. Echoing this point, Chase says that the concerns of the stakeholders must be addressed. The best way to do this is to speak to the benefits of the shared autonomous future, as well as address the valid concerns (e.g. job loss, environmental impact, choice, etc.).

Great Foundation, But What’s Plan B? #

Local Motors' autonomous vehicle, Olli, sharing the road at Peachtree Corners, GA's real-world lab; Curiosity Lab.
Autonomous Vehicle Olli sharing the road at the Curiosity Lab.

This panel laid a great foundation for the rest of the Summit. In many ways, the discussion is reminiscent of the dawn of the early days of the Internet when there was much speculation about what interactive applications of the future might look like. By shrinking distance and enabling knowledge on-demand, the hope was that there would be improvements to the quality of life.

In many ways, that future has come to pass with players that didn’t exist at that time, with implementations that few probably saw, and with changes to society that were probably larger than most expected.

Finally, the Dispatcher’s Michael Sena posed a thought-provoking question that asks what happens if shared driverless doesn’t meet the expectations of the vision.

“If you believe that driverless cars are the answer to providing improved mobility for those people who are underserved by present alternatives (i.e., private cars, taxis, buses, trains, bicycles, etc.), and if for some reason it is not possible to build driverless vehicles that can take people everywhere they need to go, do you have an alternative that satisfies the objective of providing that improved mobility?”

His question is sure to resurface during the course of this multi-month virtual summit.

¹According to the 2019 homeless census, 3,655 people (page 21) sleep in their cars in Santa Clara County.

Author Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

By Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

Ken Pyle is Marketing Director for the Broadband Forum. The mission of this 25+-year-old non-profit “is to unlock the potential for new markets and profitable revenue growth by leveraging new technologies and standards in the home, intelligent small business, and multi-user infrastructure of the broadband network.”

He is also co-founder of Viodi, LLC and Managing Editor of the Viodi View, a publication focused on the rural broadband ecosystem, autonomous vehicles, and electric aviation. He has edited and produced numerous multimedia projects for NTCA, US Telecom and Viodi. Pyle is the producer of Viodi’s Local Content Workshop, the Video Production Crash Course at NAB, as well as ViodiTV. He has been intimately involved in Viodi’s consulting projects and has created processes for clients to use for their PPV and VOD operations, as well authored reports on the independent telco market.

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