To create successful mobility solutions, one must be willing to empathetically listen to all people and in locations that are convenient for them. This is one of the insights of Henry Greenidge, moderator of the 3/18/21 Smart Driving Car Summit panel, Human-centered Design of Safe and Affordable Driverless Mobility. As the founder of OurMobileFuture, a former Cruise executive and current Fellow-In-Residence at the NYU McSilver Institute of Poverty Policy & Research, Greenidge brings a big picture view that transcends silos, which is exactly what is needed to create people-serving, autonomous mobility.
Smart Driving Car Summit organizer and Princeton Professor, Alain Kornhauser, set the stage by suggesting the measurement of driverless success depends upon factors such as:
- level of service – how often and how convenient?
- physical design – how it accommodates people of all abilities?
- the human-machine interface – how easy is it to use?
- provision of area-wide service – can it get us where we want?
- cost-effectiveness – can society afford it?
The above questions reinforce Kornhauser’s belief that we are moving beyond the bits and bytes of the technology and moving into the sociological factors, hence the purpose of this panel.
Start with the Community #
Echoing Alain’s comment, Lilian Coral, Director of National Strategy + Technology Innovation at the Knight Foundation, suggests that the time is now to have the community discussions around autonomous mobility. The Knight Foundation’s efforts in autonomous mobility began as part of a 5-year, $5.25M initiative with the following objectives:
- Autonomous mobility projects that focus on the needs of residents
- Create a cohort to share learnings across deployments in different cities.
- Multiple projects with multiple cities (currently Detroit, San Jose, Pittsburgh, and Miami) that focus on specific opportunities (e.g., helping Detroiters get to/from bus stops to connect to employment hubs).
With the events of 2020, there have been many twists and turns in the program, but Coral reinforces that “this is a long-haul investment,” and “cities must do the work now so that they are not caught flat-footed.”
Their autonomous mobility initiative is part of the Knight Foundation’s Smart Cities Program which focuses on using data for citizen engagement, urban mobility, and technology in public spaces. It is important to reach a broad swath of the community, which may require non-traditional approaches to engagement.
A great example of understanding why it is important to start with community engagement is given by the Knight Foundation-funded, May 2020 Community Ties study. This Urban Institute-led survey of more than 11,000 individuals looks at what attaches people to their community. As would be expected, the results vary by location, income, gender, race, age, and education.
Greenidge points out that a challenge to such a dialogue is dealing with the tension between solving today’s issues versus investing in a discussion about tomorrow’s challenges. There also needs to be strategies to counter the mistrust some communities may have in governments’ past actions. Coral indicates that shorter pilot projects, where feedback can be incorporated relatively fast, helps build trust.
Coral states that the people residing in each locale should be the ones driving and deciding what smart city attributes their community should have. It is important for cities to have a robust dialogue about mobility and equity before jumping to solutions.
Trust Is Key #
Reinforcing Coral’s message, Erin Clark, Policy Analyst at the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), put open and consistent communications as one of her lessons learned regarding the testing of autonomous vehicles in the city of bridges. Other lessons include:
- Engage early and often.
- Be transparent with the public – they provide an annual testing report.
- Collaborate with other cities.
As background, a 2019 Executive Order (PDF) by the City of Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto set the direction for the autonomous vehicle testing program run by DOMI. The basis of this program is a set of principles (PDF), of four P’s; people, planet, place, and performance. DOMI translated this into testing guidelines and a submission process (PDF).
In terms of communications, DOMI meets with three different working groups on a regular basis. These working groups represent community members, various government entities, and autonomous vehicle testers. They talk about goals, current progress, and how to improve outcomes.
One takeaway from these meetings is that technology is not always the right solution. A discussion with the AV tester group revealed that some people are purposely taunting the law-abiding autonomous vehicles. This points to the important lesson of asking the community before launching pilots. In the words of Professor Kornhauser, it is important to have a welcoming community.
Transcend Silos #
From healthcare to education to shopping to employment opportunities, physical mobility impacts all aspects of an individual’s daily life. With that in mind, Coral emphasizes that mobility needs to transcend the silos of local government. Greenidge says he saw an excellent example of an Arizona City that embraced this approach by involving all departments early on in its autonomous vehicle testing program.
Pittsburgh’s Clark suggests starting discussions early between city departments to inspire staff to think about the potential impact and opportunity of autonomous vehicles. This may help identify challenges before deployment, as well as lead to new use cases. As an example of a new use-case, a low-speed autonomous shuttle service to bring people to locations with existing city services might achieve the same goals faster and for less money than constructing a new building.¹
Simply, as Beth Ferguson, Director of Adapting City Lab at UC Davis, points out, there will be different vehicles with different features to meet different needs. Some vehicles might be taller, giving human attendants the ability to stand, while others might be geared as mobile workspaces.
While waiting for technology to solve a city’s mobility issues, Diana Furchtgott-Roth encourages cities and others to give vouchers for rideshare services and to partner with organizations such as ITN America. This relatively low-cost, community-based, seniors-helping-seniors program is a way to help part of the population today. At the same time, a solution like ITN America is sure to provide valuable data applicable to the rollout of autonomous mobility.
The Bigger Picture – High Quality, Low-Cost Mobility #
In a sense, this panel discussion is bigger than autonomous vehicles carrying passengers. It is about providing high-quality and lower-cost mobility. More than moving people, it is also about moving goods as well. It also offers a glimpse into what might be possible in terms of rethinking the built environment.
Imagining the future of mobility and its impact on the built environment is the expertise of Beth Ferguson. Ferguson and a research team, which includes Angela Sanuinetti, Research Environmental Psychologist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, “are developing a custom survey tool to test the influence of design features on consumers’ willingness to pool.”³
Ferguson’s images show the challenges of designing for a world where people will need to feel safe sharing space with others. The design considerations for such a new environment include elements like separation screens, efficient sanitization methods, and may even step back in time to the open-air cabins of last-century streetcars. Their survey will explore the types of attributes that will encourage sharing and pooling, such as,
- Convenience factors – e.g., free Wi-Fi, swivel seats, storage
- Security needs – e.g., well-lit, remote human vehicle monitoring, security cameras, women-only vehicles for late-night use
- Social aspects – friend pooling, games, a mobile canvas for public art
The UC Davis team is reflective of the multi-disciplinary design approach necessary to create vehicles that people will want to share and ride pool. Ferguson recommends the Stanford D.School and IDEO U as resources for people wishing to develop a deep appreciation for the soft skills necessary to create designs that work for all humans.
Listening with empathy is critical according to Coral. This starts by talking to people in their communities and seeing how they live. Coral points out that many of the images of future vehicles not only exclude people but when they do show people it is not diverse in terms of what they are doing or even in realistic environments.
For instance, where are the pictures of people with their hands full of groceries unable to access their phone to confirm their robo-taxi ride? A lesson from the Pittsburgh testing is that, like that fictional grocery bag scenario, some people cannot rely on a smartphone as a communication link between the human and robo-taxi.
Think Beyond the Vehicle #
Prashanth Venkataram, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of California, is collaborating with Ferguson’s team on the challenge of level boarding for wheelchair accessibility in robo-taxis. Level boarding, in conjunction with standardized infrastructure, would alleviate concerns about the failure of automatic ramps/lifts built into autonomous vehicles.
Separately, Venkataram points out that human-centric design should account for the people outside the vehicle and not just on the inside. At one level, this means creating some form of readily understood eye contact between human and machine, whether that is blinking lights or animations. Ferguson says this may also mean giving electric vehicles sounds as well to warn people of their presence.
Clark indicates that the City of Pittsburgh wants autonomous vehicles to fit into existing transportation lanes with other traffic. Surveys from their local bike advocacy group indicate that people feel safer with autonomous as compared to human-driven vehicles. Ferguson suggests that a new lane could be developed for light electric vehicles (e.g., electric scooters, delivery vehicles).
This would be one way to avoid sacrificing the sidewalk to accommodate new forms of mobility.4 And, thanks to recent legislation, the types of vehicles competing for sidewalk space, at least in Pennsylvania, could include 550-pound package-carrying robots traveling up to 12 MPH, according to Clark.
Stay tuned for next week when the Smart Driving Car Summit will delve deeper into package delivery with the session, Improving the Moving of Goods.
 This article touches upon the idea of adding automated mobility in San Jose to help bring people to community service opportunities, as one element of a lower-cost, faster alternative to building a new community center. https://puebloplay.wordpress.com/2020/10/05/why-should-we-have-to-wait-for-the-community-services/
 An example of mobility as a business amenity is Beep’s Lake Nona deployment. https://viodi.com/2020/11/24/cutting-edge-automated-mobility-at-the-oldest-national-park-beyond/
 Zia Wadud and Phani Kumar Chintakayala just released their research on the value of ownership versus shared driverless using choice experimentation with a group of 800 people in London and Manchester. It will be interesting to see how the results of UC Davis’ effort correlate to this research from the University of Leeds https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0968090X21000152 & the video overview https://youtu.be/EAnTHeYsm6o.
Note: The author acknowledges and appreciates the feedback from Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Prashanth Venkataram in helping improve the clarity of this summary of the 3/18/2021, Smart Driving Car Summit session.