Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment

A Driverless Contest for Mid-Size Cities

Little Rock = Little Rideshare Service? #

A benefit of travel is the random conversations with strangers that cause one to look at the world in a slightly different way. For instance, standing in the airport security line this week, a lady from Little Rock, AR explained that Uber and Lyft no longer serve the hometown of the Bill Clinton Presidential Library.

[Fact check, according to its website, Lyft and Uber, as well as other local providers serve the Clinton National Airport.]

She said their apps indicated that their respective services were not available. She believes this happened as a result of the pandemic.

[Fact check; Perhaps there still is a dearth of drivers as reported in 2021.]

She described the taxi service in the Little Rock area as “awful”. It takes an hour and a half to get one. She also doesn’t feel safe in a taxi especially compared to Uber/Lyft.

A friend took her to the airport as she is without a car thanks to a tornado that blew out the windows in her car on March 31st. Apparently, auto repair shops are backed up with tornado-caused repairs.

Whether this person is 100% accurate is secondary to her perception of the situation. It is her perception that influences her reality (e.g., she won’t take a taxi and public transportation was not even part of the conversation).

An Opportunity to Improve Mobility Via Driverless #

If her perception of the limited mobility choices is representative of the population, perhaps Little Rock would be a great use case for a driverless service. I forwarded this question to Princeton Professor Kornhauser and Michele Lee of Cruise for them to ponder and look forward to any feedback they might have (Kornhauser comments about this in the latest SmartDrivingCars podcast).

As background, the three of us serendipitously converged at CES2023 and talked about mobility challenges. In a soundbite from that interview, Lee explains the challenges and opportunities for improving mobility and questions whether she could make the journey to Alain’s house. There are glimpses of her entering and securing her wheelchair in the Cruise, driverless Origin vehicle.

Michele Lee speaking at CES2023

In a sense, the June 2014 Viodi article, Google’s Potential End Game – Transport and Organize the World’s People, Not Just Information, encapsulates my view on how driverless might develop. Done correctly, driverless has the potential to improve mobility for those in need while improving the quality of life for all (e.g., more sustainable transportation, less infrastructure dedicated to parking, etc.).

San Francisco – Not so Fast, Driverless #

With approximately 2 million driverless (no human driver or onboard safety person) miles, Cruise makes a strong argument that its vehicles can perform the transportation task. The bigger challenge is how it works or how it is perceived to work with public safety and other drivers, and (who don’t necessarily follow the rules of the road).

A Waymo test vehicle driving on I-280 south of San Francisco.

A Waymo test vehicle driving on I-280 south of San Francisco.

This is seen in the backlash in California that Cruise and Waymo face with their respective efforts to expand commercial driverless service in San Francisco. As briefly explained here, this author supports the efforts of Cruise and the industry in general to propagate shared, electric, autonomous mobility.

San Franciso is a difficult city for driving, given its density (approximately 19,000 people per square mile), 48-named hills, narrow roads, and other obstacles. As Professor Kornhauser has stated in the past, perhaps there are better places for companies to set up their driverless lemonade stands than San Francisco.

Moving Towards a Municipality Must-Have – A Contest #

A strong argument could be made that a mid-size city, such as Little Rock, Greenville, Trenton, or Boise would be a better choice for a driverless deployment. Driverless competitors, that still have safety drivers, such as May Mobility (e.g., Grand Rapids, MN) and Beep (e.g., Lake Nona, FL), are taking that approach with many of the locations they serve.

To find a welcoming locale, Cruise and Waymo could take this author’s 2014 idea and hold a contest. This idea parrots Google’s successful 2010 contest to find a launch location for its gigabit fiber offering. This contest was about finding communities, with populations between 50k and 500k, that would work with Google to improve broadband for its citizens.

Similarly, the collaboration between municipalities and the driverless operator is going to be critical for commercial success. From interaction with public safety agencies to traffic management to preparing for emergencies (e.g. such as the tornados that hit Little Rock), there are still many unknowns.

Simply, the operators need city and associated government agencies that are willing to collaborate to set up to create best practices and then quickly modify them with real-world feedback. Of course, the citizens need to support these initiatives, as otherwise, the roadblocks will be figurative and, potentially, literal. There is probably at least one person in Little Rock who would gladly want her city to participate in such a city-changing opportunity.

Multiple images of Michele Lee of Cruise entering and exiting Cruise's Origin autonomous, electric vehicle.

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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