It’s not a question of whether we will be riding in autonomous electric cars. It’s a question of when.
And the answer is sooner than you think.
Robert Hinkle, director of corporate affairs at NTE Mobility Partners, can hardly wait.
“I’m willing to be one of the early crash test dummies when they start testing autonomous vehicles because I’m ready,” he says. “If I can sit in the back … and I can make myself a pimento cheese sandwich and have a Dr Pepper, and maybe watch a little TV, I’m golden.”
A presentation Hinkle moderated at the recent Northeast Tarrant Transportation Summit occurred 30 days before the March 18 fatal auto-pedestrian accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which an autonomous car operated by Uber with an emergency backup driver behind the wheel struck and fatally injured a woman crossing a street.
The death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg is believed to be the first pedestrian fatality by a self-driving test vehicle.
Uber quickly suspended testing in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. (See related story, page XX.)
Earlier, the mood at the Northeast Tarrant summit was upbeat and futuristic.
“I’m golden as long as somebody’s driving me around and dropping me off,” Hinkle said.
He recalled the 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?, which suggested that government regulation and other restrictions would block rapid deployment. That same documentarian, Chris Paine, was back in 2011 with a sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, the now frantic dash by car makers to capture this emerging market.
Look no farther than Arlington for a demonstration of what life could be like in the blink of an eye.
Ann Foss, principal planner in Arlington’s Community Development and Planning Department, was the first certified chief operator for automated vehicles in Texas.
That’s good, because she oversees Milo, Arlington’s new low-speed electric autonomous shuttle.
“We have leased two of these vehicles from the company Easy Mile, based out of France,” she said.
In the two-year pilot program, the vehicles run in Arlington’s entertainment district and serve major events at the two stadiums to connect parking lots.
They currently operate off-street only because under federal regulations the vehicles are not technically street-legal yet.
“They don’t have steering wheels, they don’t have brake pedals, seat belts, license plates, but they do have the ability to hold up to 12 people and move them around,” Foss said. They also have a wheelchair ramp and a trained operator on board at all times who is there mostly to answer questions.
That’s one part of the puzzle. The other is on-street vehicles.
“We are aggressively pursuing an on-street AV [autonomous vehicle] deployment,” Foss said. “We’re running AV right now. It’s been operational since August, so the City of Arlington was actually the first municipal government to offer AV rides to the general public on an ongoing basis. We are hoping to have an on-street deployment by the end of this year.”
Arlington is also experimenting with an on-demand ride share service in partnership with a company called Via, a New York-based company that offers on-demand minibus rides.
“It launched in December,” Foss said. “It is a completely on-demand service. There’s no fixed routes, no fixed times or station locations. The way it works is it’ll pick people up anywhere within a designated service area and drop them off anywhere they want to go.”
Arlington has a fleet of 10 Mercedes Metris vans branded for Arlington so riders know when their vehicle shows up.
“Right now, there are human drivers for this service. They’re trained and hired by Via, but the service is driven by an app on your smartphone” to summon the van, she said. “It’s certainly easy to see how a service like this could easily become an automated service in perhaps the not-so-far future.”
END OF OWNERSHIP
Those two programs almost model a Lyft system that the company thinks might end the private ownership of automobiles.
In fact, that how Jon Walker, transportation policy manager for Lyft, titled his slide presentation at the transit conference: “The End of Car Ownership.”
The concept is simple — get commuters to share rides and eventually have fleets of self-driving cars that offer carpools on demand.
“Lyft and other folks in the space get talked about a lot as disrupting transportation but really we haven’t disrupted it enough,” Walker said at the conference. “We’re far less than 1 percent of all miles driven, us and our competitors in the United States.”
Americans, he says, have chosen to drive vehicles and they’ve largely chosen to buy and drive vehicles alone.
Lyft plans to upend that model, Walker said. An automobile is generally the second most expensive purchase people make after their home — the most expensive for low-income people — and yet it sits idle 97 percent of the time and is a major source of both traffic congestion and air pollution.
Lyft has a two-prong strategy, he says. One is working with the world’s leading autonomous vehicle companies such as Waymo, General Motors, Ford, Aptiv, Neutonomy, Drive AI and Jaguar Land Rover.
“Our strategy is to become the platform that the world’s best automated vehicles can bring their technology, put it on our platform and deploy it for consumers,” Walker said. “In the next year or two, you will see Lyft functionality that has the possibility of an automated vehicle with no safety driver picking you up in certain locations.”
The second prong is that Lyft is working on its own autonomous vehicle.
“We have a new research center in Palo Alto called Level Five, where we’ve hired some of the top talent in the world,” Walker said. “We’re not starting from ground zero because of the talent we’ve hired.”
People who talk about autonomous vehicles speak about levels of performance and the top is level five, where the vehicle can do anything, at any time, in any weather condition and on any route.
“That’s a while off,” Walker said. “I won’t predict it because we don’t know. And if somebody tells you they know when they’re going to get to level five, I think they’re wrong.”
But level four is now, and he predicts that Lyft will have its only level four vehicle within the next two years.
Level four is loosely defined as a vehicle that can operate without human oversight under select conditions that include the type of road or geographic area.
“We want to be in this thing to win it. One of our top priorities is to be a leader in this and we feel like we’re up there right now,” he said.
The company’s Lyft Line visualizes sharing a ride with others going the same direction and in one proposal could include a Lyft Line station similar to present day taxi stands.
Lyft believes that it can make on-demand and autonomous service so economical that it can undercut private car ownership.
Walker says AAA figures it cost 60 to 70 cents a mile to own and operate a car.
“We think we can undercut that, and then the question to the consumer is, do I want to sink $30,000 on average into a big two-ton piece of steel that I have to park, maintain, clean, insure and fuel, or do I want to be picked up by a robo-chauffeur in the vehicle type I want that takes me door to door,” he said. “I can drink my Dr Pepper in the back seat or whatever, and we think that the answer is most consumers are going to pick the robo-chauffeur.”
What if 50 percent of Americans choose the service?
“You’re talking about about a trillion dollars of market,” Walker said. “That’s bigger than Apple, Toyota, Google combined. That’s the biggest market in the entire world of any one product so yeah, we’ll take half of Americans.
“And those are just the early adopters. We think we’ll get up to 80 percent of people willing to ride in these things, and the other thing, we’re really interested in the environment, reducing emissions, reducing our impact,” Walker said
The sequence forward is to pull the human driver out of the vehicle – maybe next year with one partner – and move toward all-autonomous vehicles that operate at less than 25 miles per hour but are almost at level five but can do basically anything in a city environment, Walker said.
He said that speed might not sound great, but the average speed of a car on the road in Austin is 17 mph so “25 miles per hour is way faster than the average speed, even in a Texas city. I think New York City is like 12 miles per hour,” Walker said. “And then, of course, when we’re ready, we’re going to start integrating full autonomous vehicles onto the platform.”
Having autonomous cars in city streets isn’t guaranteed because the vehicles operate better in some conditions than others and much depends on the condition of the road.
Tom Bamonte, senior program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a voluntary association of local governments covering 16 counties and 230 member governments, says the autonomous car companies are looking for more than just roadway from cities.
“One of the Council of Governments’ priorities is doing low-cost ways to prepare for automated vehicles, and that comes down to sharing your data with the developer community so they can build the apps and the technology to help these vehicles work,” Bamonte said.
One piece is making traffic signal phase and timing data accessible.
“Last year, it was really just Frisco,” he said. “I’m pleased to report that a bunch of local communities are now sharing their traffic signal data. Dallas is going to do that in the next few months. We hope to get Fort Worth on board soon.”
Bamonte said that in talking to autonomous vehicle developers, they’ll say that they don’t need that data but it’s nice to have.
“Those communities that share their traffic signal data, they’re the places we want to go to deploy our automated vehicles,” he said.
The same is true of partnering with Waze, a crowd-sourced traffic application, because information about, for example, road closings “optimizes the travel navigation services that many of our customers use,” he said.
“So what do these automated vehicle developers want from us? As these vehicles go down the roadways, they’re looking, they’re mapping, and anything the roadway can do to be as predictable and as transparent to these vehicles is what’s important,” Bamonte said.
In other words, they want what human drivers want: well-marked streets, unobstructed signals and signs, advance warning of road closures and supportive local leadership.
“Basically, the AV developers are telling us, maintain your existing roadways to a high level and we’ll do the rest,” Bamonte said.
He spent two days with an AV developer recently gathering dash camera images of test sites.
“They got to one community, which I won’t name, but they looked at the condition of the roads and the guy switched off the dash cam and said, ‘Nope, not going to work.’ That was because of the poor condition of the roadways,” he said. “So basic maintenance is your competitive advantage in attracting these automated vehicles.”
Estimates are that perhaps 20 percent of the new cars sold in the United States by 2025 will be electric, 60 percent by 2035 and 90 percent by 2045. But the increase could come quicker than that and – of great interest to lawmakers and others – electric cars pay no gasoline tax.
“So our source of funding for things like road maintenance could well be drying up. That’s a long-term challenge we got to deal with,” Bamonte said.
Another challenge, but a real opportunity, are dockless rental bikes. That’s a problem facing Dallas right now, where riders leave rented bicycles in random locations, often blocking sidewalks and trails, rather than docked in bike racks.
“This is a new form of mobility, it’s app-based, it gives citizens the potential of cheap transportation to get to work, to get to jobs, to recreation,” he said.
“The AV developer community is looking to see how we as a region react to this new form of mobility,” Bamonte said. “Are we going to figure out the right balance between regulation and permissiveness? Are we going to show civic leadership?”
A community that can figure out how to cope with the dockless bike issue will be very attractive to AV developers.
“So as dockless bikes come to your community, think of it as a dry run for automated vehicles and show the civic leadership, find the right balance between law enforcement and permissiveness in order to show that this region can embrace and adopt new forms of mobility,” Bamonte said.