Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment

Upward Urban & Rural Mobility via Autonomous Mobility

Potholes and broken sidewalks occur present a barrier to mobility in urban, suburban, and rural America
Potholes and broken sidewalks present a barrier to mobility in urban, suburban, and rural America

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The picture Selika Josiah Talbott chose for her virtual backdrop at the recent 2021 TRB Annual Automated Road Transportation Symposium sums up the mobility challenges that urban and rural locales face with existing infrastructure, particularly in low-income areas. Joining Talbott on this panel were experts opining on Talbott’s insightful comments about autonomous mobility and its potential to provide upward mobility.

Cracked Sidewalks, Poor Lighting, & Unsafe Conditions #

Talbott, Professorial Lecturer Department of Public Administration and Policy at the American University, was blunt in her assessment of the challenge of bringing autonomous vehicles to lower-income neighborhoods with her statement,

“Conditions aren’t fit for walking, much less for autonomous vehicles.”

Cracked sidewalks, poor lighting, and unsafe conditions are some of the transportation challenges for people who do not have or are unable to drive cars.  Talbott is quick to point out that these challenges are as great for rural, as they are for urban areas.

A rural town without sidewalks
A rural town without sidewalks

Paraphrasing something she saw on social media, NUMO founder Robin Chase, reinforced Talbott’s comment by stating that it is,

“Safer to fly across the ocean than it is to walk across the street.”

Chase sees autonomous vehicles as one part – not necessarily the highest priority – of an overall solution for improving mobility. Chase believes that we need to fix the current infrastructure with an eye towards tomorrow’s developments.

Commenting on Talbott’s opening comments, Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser believes that autonomy offers the opportunity to help those who lack mobility options; for instance, 70% of Trenton households have one or fewer cars, while 70% of Chandler, Arizona households have two or more cars. AVs offer the promise of low-cost mobility that could open new opportunities for those without vehicles.

Brad Templeton suggests that over the long-term, operating costs for single and, what he terms, half-size, shared, electric vehicles will be in the $0.25 per mile range, much lower than existing public transportation costs. He compares the evolution to that of cell phones where the initial deployments were expensive and only made sense for high-value use cases. One of the first use cases for autonomous mobility is the delivery of food, as seen with Starship and Nuro.

Good Robot Manners & Good Infrastructure #

Starship delivery vehicles in Mountain View, CA.
Starship delivery vehicles in Mountain View, CA.

Bern Grush talks about the importance of good sidewalk infrastructure and good robot manners in a recent Viodi View interview. Grush is leading an ISO standardization process to provide cities a reference for how to adapt to the expected growth of sidewalk robots. Watch the interview and read more here.

The Role of Governments #

Baruch Feigenbaum, Senior Managing Director, Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation argues that a business case needs to be made for autonomous vehicles. As pointed out in his July 14th, 2021 article, decisions by local governments to deploy capital towards light rail reduced mobility options for low-income groups in multiple cities.

Abandoned Buildings on the old Route 66 .
Abandoned Buildings on the old Route 66.

There was agreement among the group with his statement that planners have a difficult time getting in front of and understanding the needs of the groups who need better mobility options. Panel moderator Richard Mudge points out that there seems to be little interest in autonomous vehicles at the federal level, based on the current infrastructure bill.

Talbott argues that governments need to take a holistic view of how autonomous vehicles could help deliver better government services to both rural and urban areas. This will require government agencies, regardless of whether at the local, state, or federal level, to cross silos and focus on improving outcomes for the constituents they serve.

While there are often potholes on local roads, the Interstates are often in good condition.
While there are often potholes on local roads, the Interstates are often in good condition.

That is, the money spent on creating better transportation will show up as savings in other programs. To this point, Templeton says, that when he consulted for Google, he suggested that they initially focus on autonomous vehicle paratransit applications. This meets an existing need and provides a proven revenue stream of approximately $30 per ride.

Talbott, who is also the Founding Partner of Autonomous Vehicle Consulting, LLC, is optimistic about the long-term potential positive impact of autonomous vehicles, including,

  • Lowering the transportation cost of fresh fruit and vegetables to food deserts,
  • Potentially changing the way communities are policed.
  • Improving health care outcomes by making reducing the friction that prevents regular medical appointments.

Simply, autonomous vehicles have the promise to improve people’s quality of life in both urban and rural areas. Still, realizing that vision is, as Robin Chase states, complicated.

Hear more from Talbott, Mudge, Feigenbaum, and Kornhauser #

In the latest SmartDrivingCar podcast (YouTube), Talbott reiterates the need for federal leadership in bridging the silos that exist between departments, as she calls for a White House level autonomous and electric vehicle czar. In that podcast, she states that autonomy provides the potential for an economic boom and that, “Those who have the least (mobility) will benefit the most.” Richard Mudge and Baruch Feigenbaum provide their thoughts on the TRB sessions in this SmartDrivingCar podcast (YouTube).

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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One reply on “Upward Urban & Rural Mobility via Autonomous Mobility”

One of the thoughts this panel stirred was the idea that as the cost and quality of mobility improve will it make it easier for people to move to new developments that don’t have to deal with legacy infrastructure issues? That is, will better mobility improve the existing built environment (and the resulting quality of life), or will it just make it easier for people to abandon areas where things such as personal safety, infrastructure, access to fresh food, and quality education are lacking?

The image of the abandoned gas station and motel, shown above, is sort of a modern ghost town and a metaphor for the challenges some rural areas face. The owners of the property probably have no incentive to clean up the mess, as the commercial value of the property is apparently non-existent. If there were commercial value, it would probably be cheaper to buy the lot next store and build something (as opposed to tearing down the structures and rebuilding).

Chases’ comment about this being complicated is spot-on.

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