Jul 19 2022

Municipalities Explore Autonomous Vehicles to Expand Citizen Mobility

Localities cite sustainability and safety in deployments of self-driving shuttles and cars.

Around the nation, cities are experimenting with autonomous vehicles, or AV, as part of their transportation mix.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., residents can shuttle across town in self-driving vehicles thanks to a partnership between May Mobility, the University of Michigan’s Mcity and the economic development organization Ann Arbor SPARK.

“It can be a really good first- and last-mile solution connecting important transportation hubs within our downtown,” says SPARK Director of Mobility Programs Komal Doshi. “One benefit of autonomy is safety. It removes driver distraction and it takes away the risk that somebody might be driving under the influence of alcohol. We also just want to get people more comfortable with the idea of autonomous technology.”

Anticipating the trend toward autonomy and seeking to establish themselves as leaders in civic tech, many cities now have AV pilots up and running as a way to enhance safety, promote sustainability and expand public transit.

“To provide personal mobility requires a large number of vehicles, and with human-driven vehicles, that becomes fairly costly to operate,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst leading the E-Mobility Research Service at Guidehouse. “Autonomous vehicles potentially give you more flexibility and a more cost-effective solution.”

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How Partnerships are Enhancing Smart City Efforts

Technology plays a key role in Ann Arbor’s autonomous vehicles, with sensors, cameras, radar, LIDAR — “everything that helps the system to visualize its environment,” Doshi says. To ensure safe operation, each vehicle requires, among other things, five lidar devices, five radars, seven cameras and multiband GPS.

May Mobility leverages Amazon Web Services (AWS) for cloud connectivity, which in turn helps the city to learn from its AV pilot.

EXPLORE: How Raleigh is improving traffic with smart technology.

“We are collecting a lot of data, trying to measure the potential of autonomous vehicle services to integrate smoothly with existing transportation systems and make it accessible to more people,” Doshi says.

For Ann Arbor’s AV initiative, “there isn’t any funding from the city itself,” she says. Instead, funders for the AV project include Mcity; important Safety Technologies, an emerging technology company working on pedestrian safety; 4M, Ann Arbor’s first co-living townhomes; the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification; and Ann Arbor SPARK.

“This collection of private, public and academic partners exemplifies that mobility is not just the responsibility of the public sector,” Doshi says.

Cloud Connectivity Is Proving Key for Smart Cities

In Peachtree Corners, Ga., Assistant City Manager and CTO Brandon Branham oversees Piloting Autonomous Use Locally, or PAUL. Born on a 3-mile test track operated by the economic development initiative Curiosity Lab, the autonomous shuttle services residents at seven stops along the city’s Technology Parkway.

“We are focused on economic development, setting ourselves apart from other cities,” Branham says. “We looked at what cities can do to help advance technology in the different areas of smart cities and smart mobility. Now, we’re making use of public infrastructure to test some of these emerging technologies.”

The shuttle carried just over 600 passengers in its first four and a half months, and is a key piece of the city’s overall smart city efforts.

“We want to move citizens and employees around in a more efficient, sustainable model, and we know that the biggest expense for any transportation operation, outside of the vehicle itself, is manpower,” Branham says.

LEARN ABOUT: Philadelphia's smart streetlight program for collecting real-time data.

The economic development piece comes from positioning the city as a leader in civic tech. “We’ve been able to bring other companies here,” he says. “Projects like this help to bring them here. These companies see what we’re doing and they want to be a part of that.”

Cloud connectivity is key to bringing to life the AV vision. “That helps from a learning perspective — learning from what is happening in those environments, what the different things are that are going on in the public space,” he says. “If we see an incident where the shuttle had a hard stop, we can go back to the data and figure out why.”

For cities looking to support an AV effort, it helps to start small. Peachtree Corners, for example, leveraged its test track as a starting point supported by a powerful 5G network supplied by T-Mobile.

“You don’t know how safe it is until you put it out and you put it in the test. So, you start in a closed-course environment where you can control all the variables,” Branham says.

Komal Doshi
We are collecting a lot of data, trying to measure the potential of autonomous vehicle services.”

Komal Doshi Director of Mobility Programs, Ann Arbor SPARK

Why Data-Driven Decisions Matter

In Arlington, Texas, an AV pilot supports a bigger vision for civic tech. “It is part of our broader smart cities initiatives, the approach of really using data to drive decision-making,” says Ann Foss, a principal planner for the city and project manager for Arlington’s Rideshare, Automation and Payment Integration Demonstration (RAPID) service.

Launched in mid-2021, RAPID leverages five autonomous vehicles to offer on-demand rides through a partnership between Via, May Mobility and the University of Texas at Arlington. Commuters can book and pay for the autonomous vehicle through an app on their Google Android- or Apple iOS-enabled smartphones.

One aim of the pilot is to test AV in real-world settings, “to really understand the state of technology, what works and what some of the limitations are that still exist,” Foss says. “Another main goal is exposing our citizens and visitors to AV technology, letting them learn about it and hopefully become more comfortable with it.”

The rideshare operates in a small area of the city, about one square mile, that includes the UT Arlington campus, which has about 40,000 students, as well as most of the city’s civic and cultural core. The AVs run with a human operator on board to ensure safety.

DIVE DEEPER: How cloud computing and IoT is making transportation smarter.

“With those five vehicles, we just wrapped up our first year of deployment in March, and in that time we gave over 28,000 rides, averaging 160 to 180 rides a day in the second half of the deployment,” Foss says.

Rideshare makes transit convenient. But why autonomy? It’s a forward-looking play. “This will help to make a safer, more efficient and more cost-effective service in the future,” Foss says.

As part of the effort, the city is looking to boost equity, as required by the Federal Transit Administration, which helped to fund the project.

“Part of our budget was allocated to provide free rides for the UT Arlington students who used the service. Also, the service area that we targeted has populations that are underserved by transportation — lower-income people, minority communities, lower levels of access to a personal vehicle,” Foss says.

“We wanted to make another option available for folks who don’t have as many transportation options. That is one of the clear benefits that we are able to provide,” she says.

Photography by Matthew Lavere

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