“It’s time to hit the start button,” is Fred Fishkin’s succinct way of summarizing the next steps in the Smart Driving Car journey. Fiskin, along with the LA Times’ Russ Mitchell co-produced the final session of the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit, Making It Happen – Part 2. This 16th and final session in this multi-month online conference not only provided a summary of the thought-provoking speakers but also provided food for thought on a way forward to bring mobility to “the Trentons of the World.”
Setting the stage for this final session, Michael Sena provided highlights of the Smart Driving Car journey that started in late December 2020. Safety, high-quality, and affordable mobility, particularly for those who do not have many options, was a common theme to the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit. As the conference organizer, Princeton Professor Kornhauser, puts it,
“We want the value [of safe driving and driverless] to be captured by society.”
The MaaS Economics of Trenton and Beyond #
Building on the April 8th, 2021 session, Kornhauser presented a path for bringing an on-demand mobility solution to Trenton, New Jersey. The focus of this solution is what he terms the “mobility marginalized”. Simply these are people, for example, who cannot afford to own a car, may not have a driver’s license, or are unable to drive because of a physical limitation.
Using Trenton, NJ as the Operational Design Domain (ODD), Kornhauser showed a two-phase roll-out with an initial focus on those areas with the lowest car ownership first. The initial rollout would include onboard attendants to mitigate passenger anxiety. Once the ODD is proven, it could then expand. This bottom-up approach could easily be applied to other cities with mobility marginalized populations, such as Princeton, Greenville, SC, and Bentonville, AR.
Answering a question from an earlier session, Kornhauser posits that the long-term capital and operational costs could drop to 25 cents and 2.5 cents per passenger mile respectively. This assumes a robot driver and an attendant-free vehicle. With a net profit of ten cents per mile, this could yield a business that nets $6M per year in Mercer County, NJ alone (home to Princeton and Trenton).
As the business moves to wider scale deployment, Kornhauser posits that there might less price sensitivity. He points out that his calculations do not consider the potential monetization of the millions and eventually billions of person-hours of eyeball time. Implicit in Kornhauser’s comments is that passenger experience will determine the success of such a mobility service.
Community-Centered Kiosks #
And, in Kornhauser’s vision, the passenger experience starts and ends with community-centric transit kiosks. These transit kiosks would be a five-minute walk from any location in the given ODD. As envisioned by Kornhauser and Jiawei (Jerry) He, these kiosks would reflect and enhance the neighborhoods they serve. They would provide valuable information and be a place for people to make a connection.
This idea of using these mini-mobility hubs as placemaking opportunities resonated with several of the attendees. Ellen Partridge, Policy and Strategy Director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, suggests that the kiosk concept be expanded to include multiple modes of transportation, including micro-mobility solutions, whether e-bike, scooters, etc.
She points out that the kiosk approach encourages walking as well as potentially increasing the support of local businesses.
“the walking for a block or two adds to the ability to do errands on the way and to get exercise as part of daily life without going to the gym.”
From an economic sustainability standpoint, Partridge argues for multiple uses to help pay for the capital and operational costs of these hubs. Taking a nod from Uber and its dual delivery of goods and people, could these mobility hubs serve as hubs for goods as well, through things such as e-commerce lockers.
Picking up on the theme, Mitch Erickson says that the kiosks should be built around places already convene, whether that is the corner bar, convenience store, etc. It has to be a place where people want to go for multiple reasons. Kornhauser points out that the location of these will be, to some extent, density-dependent and need to be determined in a bottom-up manner, by the people in the communities served.
Traditional Bus Transit Is Broadcast TV, While Mobility as a Service Is Netflix #
What Kornhauser is proposing is a many-to-many type network that reflects the reality of the dispersion of jobs and people in a metro area (otherwise known as sprawl). Michael Sena points out that bus lines were largely designed for a many-to-one type environment, which isn’t conducive to the needs of most U.S. cities. Bus Rapid Transit worked in Curitiba, Brazil, Sena contends, because it serves originations and destinations that are next to its routes and aren’t dispersed like many cities in the U.S.
Jim Zepp, the former president of a regional coalition of neighborhood groups in Maryland explains that the focus of transit agencies tends to be on giant projects which focus on the delivery of many people in 80-passenger buses or fixed route light rail systems. He describes these efforts as large megaprojects that often turn into boondoggles [e.g Some have suggested VTA’s Eastridge Light Rail project at $720k per new rider per the June 18th, 2019 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury Report (page 33)].
Zepp believes that the entrenched interests of the bus and transit industry are an obstacle to the adoption of a MaaS approach, as described by Kornhauser. From his vantage point, the legacy transit industry still views driverless technology as vaporware compared to tangible and permanent infrastructure projects associated with rails and buses.
Futurist, Brad Templeton adds, via the session’s chat function, that “almost all transit planning has been highly dependent upon the cost of drivers.” The cost of the driver has to be amortized by a significant number of passengers, which leads to larger vehicles. The advantage of driverless is that the economics allow for vehicles that are the right size at the right time (as Templeton points out in this blog post).
In line with the theme of the session, former Greenville County, South Carolina Councilmember, Fred Payne says that he is,
“in favor of advanced mobility options with safe, reliable, convenient, cost-effective service, with buses being one mode choice.”
Communities Trying to Make It Happen #
Greenville, South Carolina:
Through the public-private partnership embodied in the public benefit corporation, Carolinas Alliance 4 Innovation, Payne is a long-time, tireless, and leading advocate for autonomous vehicles as last-mile/first-mile shuttles for people and packages as a way to drive economic development and improve the quality of life for those on the wrong side of the mobility divide in Greenville County. Greenville has been successful in bringing multi-jurisdictional governmental, non-profit, academic, and industry together to form a vision for moving forward with driverless.
Payne cites Fountain Inn, South Carolina as an example of a growing community that could benefit from AV shuttles. Interestingly, this growing berg (approximately 33% growth from 2010 to 2019) of approximately 10,000 people occupies the same area (7.9 versus 8.2 square miles) as Trenton, NJ. The ‘transit desert’ community is about to implement an FTA ‘Mobility for All’ pilot grant to offer coordinated demand-response mobility for clients of human service agencies and transport-challenged corporate employees.
A new Carolina RIDES+ team will use innovative mobility management software and available driver/vehicle teams to initiate improved service. Implementing AVs must first overcome technical, regulatory, and behavioral limits.
The RIDES+ team also has a phased plan bringing reliable demand response model mobility to Nicholtown, a Qualified Opportunity Zone (QOZ), near Downtown Greenville. QOZs are some of America’s poorest census tracts. Most QOZs need improved access to education, workforce training, physician-prescribed appointments, and non-emergency medical transport (NEMT). Validating the autonomous vehicle model will begin when regulations allow.
Shifting further south to Tampa, Florida, University of Florida Professor, Zhong-Ren Peng, Ph.D. points to a model that could serve as a proxy for driverless. Managed by ridedowntowner, the Downtowner uses electric Bolt vehicles to serve the ODD described by its name. According to Peng, who is also the Director of the iAdapt: International Center for Adaptation Planning and Design, at a cost of $5.40 per ride this on-demand service mobility service proves much less costly than the streetcar system, which averages $16.90 per ride.
Both of these programs provide free rides to the users. The $1 Million annual Downtowner program has been funded through a combination of city redevelopment property tax revenue, state and federal funds, contributions from a non-profit partnership, and downtown hotels, office towers, and developers. The biggest complaint has been its success, which has sometimes meant long waiting times for riders. The program is slated to close at the end of April.
It is not clear if there is a relationship between the ending of the Downtowner service and the recent launch of the Downtown Tampa Autonomous Transit Phase 1 system. Clearly, the autonomous corridor does not cover the same ODD as the Downtowner and it isn’t on-demand (PDF), but it could be the start of something bigger.
The Road Forward #
Professor Kornhauser believes that there are four pieces of the driverless puzzle to begin to build the bridge to cross the chasm to commercial viability.
- Facilitator – A group, most likely a foundation with and/or community group to put together a plan, monitor compliance, and make adjustments. As importantly, they would provide the seed capital to launch the program.
- MaaS Provider – This would be the fleet and operational management. This is an opportunity for the MaaS providers to begin to prove their business models.
- Infrastructure Improvements – These are the kiosks and curb, road, and intersection improvements. Kornhauser suggests that federal infrastructure grants could support these improvements. As brought up by others, there could also be commercial opportunities to help pay for these infrastructure improvements.
- Attendant/Driver Labor to certify the ODD – Kornhauser points out that attendants/drivers will be needed in the beginning to certify the ODD. Federal, state, and economic development grants could be potential sources of revenue.
Russ Mitchell expressed concerns that the technology isn’t quite ready yet, as he contends that we would be seeing wider spread deployments if it was. It is important to find out why companies aren’t going to the communities where they are welcome. He also says it will require federal leadership, starting with President Biden and Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg,
“to do more than simply replacing empty diesel buses with empty electric buses.”
Michael Sena says it is time for a proof-of-concept. There are still many questions that can only be answered by real testing. Kornhauser reiterates that these vehicles have to be part of the community and not viewed as outside invaders. The code, and by extension, the human-machine interface, can be written to do whatever the community wants. It is up to the big players, such as Waymo, GM, and Ford to deliver and make the market real.
Kornhauser concludes by reflecting on how much fun the past four months have been and thanking everyone for their participation. Thank you Dr. Kornhauser for the great program and for bringing together such interesting and informative participants.
Author’s Comment – Kiosks and Placemaking: #
In the pilot situations, focusing on placemaking, as promoted by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), is a great way to determine what should be at the kiosks for the short and long term. The challenge with the kiosk concept, at least in California, would be the time it would take to implement. So, again, following the grassroots philosophy of PPS, the focus should be on creating solutions that are “lighter, quicker, cheaper.”
In that light, in the beginning, the vehicles would be the centerpiece of a kiosk. These mobile information displays would be a precursor to more permanent electronic displays envisioned by Kornhauser and He. This would eliminate the need for displays (and the associated need for electricity) at the kiosk locations, saving money and time.
PPS recommends ten-plus different activities to draw the interest of the surrounding community. Ideally, these activities/attractions would be fungible to encourage experimentation, as well as allowing their reuse at other locations, as needed. The appeal would be to the entire neighborhood or, as 8 80 Cities puts it, if you can make the kiosk experience great for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, it will be great for everyone. This approach would also open the door to grant financing from organizations not typically associated with mobility.
 The case for a 5-minute walks radius is made in the Princeton study, Analyzing Ride-Share Potential and Empty Repositioning Requirements of a Nationwide aTaxi System. https://www.dropbox.com/s/custfytlu31kca7/Orf467F20Nationwide_aTaxiFinalReportCompilaation.pdf