Conference sponsors, speakers bullish on transformational technology

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, October 26, 2017

Technologies introduced within recent decades and those in development — the Internet, smartphones, cellular data networks, GPS, RFID, autonomous vehicles, etc. — have already begun to change how people and goods move: both the inner workings of transportation systems and the user’s experience of personal mobility and shipping. The trend towards greater seamlessness and interconnectivity, and greater use of networked systems to manage railroads, transit systems and other transportation enterprises, is certain to continue and the speed at which these changes occur will likely increase. 

Melbourne Metro trains pass over a congested highway in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Julian Smith / Australian Associated Press.
But is a fundamental altering of the transportation landscape just around the corner, or will technology merely provide more and faster information and streamline and improve management decisionmaking and customer interaction without radically reshaping the physical ways in which we get around and ship goods? And to what extent will the adoption of connected technologies leave transportation systems more vulnerable to cyber-mischief, or simply to technical glitches whose effects will be amplified? 

These questions, as they apply specifically to public transportation (primarily rail transit, but also bus), were the central themes of the two-day Smart Transit 2017 conference, held this week in Baltimore. The gathering was organized by the British rail industry media and events company Smart Rail World and sponsored by vendors that provide internet connectivity systems and other high-tech products and solutions to transit agencies. Most conference presenters are involved in or witnessing the changes these technologies are bringing about in the transit sphere, particularly in how transit agencies interact with their current and potential riders.

One primary topic of speculation was how the broader adoption of autonomous vehicles (AVs, i.e. driverless cars, vans and buses) will change the urban transportation landscape, and what this means for transit agencies. Every member of a panel on this subject shared the opinion that widespread adoption of AVs is imminent and may start to occur in a matter of a few years. Richard Bishop, a consultant specializing in automated and intelligent vehicles, said that they have been in research and development since the 1950s. Any flaws in the technology that will allow machines to safely navigate city streets and suburban boulevards are quickly being worked out, the panelists said, as are legal questions about liability for collisions involving AVs. Companies that are developing AV technology are working with insurers to form risk pools. “Most believe a safe and effective AV system can be achieved because everyone seems to want it,” Bishop proclaimed.

Lauren Isaac, Director of Business Initiatives at Easymile, which makes the technology used to operate some of the AVs already running in the U.S. and elsewhere, described two alternative visions for a future with AVs as a part of everyday life in cities. Under her nightmare scenario, every household that can afford one will have its own autonomous car that would not only take kids to and from school sans adults, but would also pick up groceries and run other errands without any humans in the vehicle. Even with “smart cities” infrastructure that could guide these vehicles so as to minimize congestion, there would be more cars on the road at any given time, and auto-dependent urban sprawl and the need for massive numbers of parking spaces would not be abated.

An Easymile EZ10 autonomous shuttle van during a demonstration in Arlington, TX - the biggest US city without a transit system. Photo by Semvatac for Transports Publics 2016.
But under Isaac’s dream scenario, there would instead be fleets of driverless taxis, vans and buses that would make rounds picking up and dropping off multiple people, feeding them to and from train stations and express bus depots for longer trips. The driverless fleets would work in tandem with the transit providers so that each journey could occur virtually on demand, scheduled with one app and prepaid for with one account. In such a world, everyone could affordably experience all the benefits of personal on-demand mobility (government could relatively inexpensively subsidize rides for society’s neediest) while greatly reducing the need for oceans of asphalt or huge parking structures, and thus promoting more compact cities and suburbs. 

Governments that want this scenario to play out must start putting enabling policies in place now, Isaac emphasized, including integrating planning for AVs with local transit agencies and putting proper road and parking pricing mechanisms in place to penalize congestion-worsening behavior. Some cities have already deployed AVs, mainly small shuttle vans that can accommodate six passengers sitting plus up to eight standing, in constrained geographic environments off of public streets. But Bishop predicts that commercial on-demand robotaxi service will roll out within the next year, maybe even the next couple of months, with driverless trucks delivering parcels not far behind.

Representatives of transit providers who attended the conference gave the impression that their agencies are ready and willing to partner with shared AV fleet operators to provide first- and last-mile connections to their rail and bus systems. Parcel delivery companies may even develop autonomous delivery vehicles small enough to roll on and off of subway and light rail trains for parts of their daily rounds. But a lot of details still remain to be worked out. 

It is good that some cities and transit operators are thinking ahead of the curve, and AVs and other burgeoning technologies hold a great deal of promise if managed well, integrated properly and kept secure. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical that a wholesale reshaping of travel within and between cities led by AVs is only months or a few years away. The transition will probably be a lot more gradual and will likely take decades.

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