November 10, 2016
Austin resident recently approved a $720 million transportation bond that is, among other strategies, designed to improve traffic flow around several ‘smart corridors’. The physical design improvements aim to improve flow for both transit and private vehicles along key routes.
This vote occurs during a time of unprecedented changes in the transportation and mobility industry. The decades long rule of Detroit-based automotive companies has reached a plateau of influence as software and experience design focused brands like Uber, Lyft, Google and Tesla rewrite social expectations and rules of competition. This shift in balance of power is likely to have real impact on how Austin residents and visitors choose to get around town in the years and decade ahead.
To truly future-proof its transportation system, Austin must make significant investments in physical infrastructure – and equally importantly, invest in informing and inspiring its residents of new opportunities, trade-offs and challenges ahead this decade around the emergence of autonomous vehicles as a centerpiece to a multi-modal integrated transportation system.
If you pay attention to business news headlines, the frequency and boldness of transportation industry announcements feels more like the PR push of the software and smart phone players than an old stodgy industrial sector. News of breakthrough innovations, partnerships and bold visions comes out on a weekly basis. Consider the string of announcements in September 2016:
Uber launched a fleet of ‘self-driving’ vehicles that will be actively managed by humans inside the vehicle but in essence do pick up, transporting and drop off in full autonomous mode. This pilot program allows Uber to test its technology and continue to build out valuable 3D maps of Pittsburgh that are used by autonomous vehicles.
Ford’s CEO Mark Fields has said the organization is now a ‘mobility solutions company’ not a ‘car company’. It has made significant investments in software partners to advance connected cars and announced it would launch a fleet of self-driving cars inside a ride-hail service by 2021. To begin its journey in providing multi-modal solutions, Ford acquired on-demand fleet manager Chariot to expand its solutions from bicycles to dynamic commuter vans. It is possible that traditional brands like Ford could deliver transit style solutions to cities around the world within a decade.
Changes are also ahead in the world of delivery and freight. Daimler announced plans to invest $560 million to develop electric vans that use small drones to deliver packages. A team from Texas A&M demonstrated a two-truck platoon that digitally connects 18-wheelers in a virtual train. Uber is also making an investment to transform freight traffic with its recent acquisition of Otto – a startup aimed at bringing autonomous long-haul freight trucks to market in the next few years.
In late September, the federal government issued its first guidance on the development and release of autonomous vehicles. The move was intended to get ahead of the rapid pace of change happening from the private sector and to bring harmonization across state borders.
Austin residents must recognize the challenges of thinking about the future and related implications of change. The general wisdom is that we tend to overestimate how much might happen in the next five years but underestimate what is likely to happen over 10 or 15 years.
Just as it is important for Austin voters to understand ‘Smart Corridors,’ the community must also be able to grapple with the idea of ‘on-demand autonomous vehicle fleets’ able to pick up, safely transport and drop off riders without the need for human driver behind the wheel. Concerns related to privacy, safety and equity will emerge and it will be critical for local leaders to address concerns of residents regarding this evolution of mobility solutions. We can agree that natural speed barriers to fast change are always lagging regulations, laws and social norms. But this will not likely deter the direction of software and experience design focused disruptors intent on reinventing transportation over the next two decades.
Austin residents decided that leveraging low cost capital to fund long-term focused design improvements for Smart Corridors makes sense for the community. The opportunity for Austin is to understand the direction of change towards more connected vehicles and inevitable integration of autonomous vehicles into our roadways. The real challenge may be in convincing Austin residents that the vehicles which use these corridors – and the business models that define movement throughout the city, will change radically in the years ahead.