By Paul Comfort, Esq.

Navya AVL
Walking off the Autonomous Shuttle

If you could see what tomorrow holds, what would that be worth today? In the world of public transportation you could almost see tomorrow in Atlanta at the recent American Public Transportation Association (APTA) tri-annual EXPO and Conference. Over 13,000 attendees spent half a week in October attending educational sessions and wearing out their shoes walking through two large exhibit halls at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center where 800 exhibitors filled more than 300,000 net square feet with their latest, cutting edge transportation products and services.

Two large multi-national transportation companies, Transdev and Keolis, gave free rides on their new fully autonomous shuttle buses that they have been testing on closed campuses around the world and here in the US. Technology vendors displayed their newest smart phone apps and transit system software that allows public transportation customers to see where their bus is in real time and track it to the bus stop or catch a Lyft to the train for their “last mile solution” to get to a public transit station. There also were many security vendors showing their latest cameras, equipment and software that will help “harden the soft targets” of American subway stations, tunnels and other public transit infrastructure that terrorists have attacked recently in Europe.

These three areas of autonomous vehicles, using technology to make the transit experience easier and upgrading security are the leading trends for public transportation heading into 2018 and beyond.

Companies like Google’s Waymo and Intel’s Mobileye are testing self-driving (or autonomous) cars around Phoenix AZ. Arizona has the nation’s most permissive laws and regulations for autonomous vehicles and it has good weather.  Uber is testing them in Pittsburgh.

Public transit agencies and their supplying vendors have been taking notice and developing similar technology for small buses that can run predetermined routes without a driver. The cost savings of driverless buses have garnered the attention of public transit managers but so far these vehicles have not been tested on public roads (also known as open traffic) here in the US. But the companies behind them say that is about to change.

Mark Joseph, Global Chief Development Officer for Transdev tells me that his company will begin operating their autonomous shuttles in open traffic in 2018.  Another major international contract transit provider Keolis, ran an autonomous shuttle open to the public but on a closed route on Fremont Street in Las Vegas this past summer. They too hope to begin operating in open, mixed traffic this coming year. Uses for autonomous shuttles that will become more prevalent in 2018 include corporate campus shuttles and airport shuttles for passengers.

Liability issues for potential accidents and injuries still need to be worked out. On September 12, 2017 the US National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released new federal guidance for automated driving systems entitled, A Vision for Safety 2.0. These guidelines indicate that, for now, the federal government is moving ahead with only voluntary guidance for manufacturers and state governments in this fast evolving technology.

The second major area for innovation in 2018 will be technology improvements to allow for a more seamless, “frictionless” use of public transit in urban areas.  Many public transit systems have been wrestling with whether (or how) to include the new transportation networking companies (TNCs), such as Lyft, in their portfolio of services offered to passengers. In 2017 some cities opted to include connections to these TNCs on their public transit apps as what is called “last mile solutions.” This will assist in getting passengers at home to and from a train, light rail or bus stop. Other transit systems are including TNCs as optional providers for paratransit services.

Another technology driven concept quickly gaining cache in the transit industry world-wide is called Mobility as a Service (MaaS). This approach envisions bundling transportation options in urban areas like cable companies now bundle television, telephone and internet for one monthly subscription fee. In Helsinki, Finland for example, residents can use a smart phone app called “Whim” to plan and pay for all modes of public and private transportation such as bus, train, taxi, carshare or bikeshare. A passenger can enter their destination, a preferred mode of transit or combination of modes if needed and travel. Passengers can pre-pay for the service as part of a monthly subscription or pay as you go using a payment account.

Other local governments are trying the MaaS approach too. Cities like Paris, Las Vegas, Denver, Los Angeles, Singapore and cities in the Netherlands are piloting various local versions of MaaS that take into account real-time travel conditions, user preferences (e.g. time and convenience vs. cost) and seamless mobile payment.

Nathaniel “Nat” Ford, CEO of Jacksonville Transit Authority and new Chair of APTA states “Our industry is evolving at a pace, never seen before. Moving away from current models, to one where there’s synergy between different modes of transportation, different technologies and different providers. Technology is being developed every day that is disruptive to our industry. Things such as autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles and artificial intelligence, just to name a few.”

As traditional bus and metro ridership in the US has declined over the past five years, transit executives are looking to change their business model and embrace these new technologies. Transit agencies are also adjusting to a new role, more analogous to a main course rather than the whole meal of public transit in their city because new mobility ecosystems are springing and include peer-to-peer car clubs, on demand privately provided bus rides, TNCs, car and bike sharing and more.

Finally, improving transit security is a fast growing need recognized in America.  European cities have seen a spike in transit related terrorist attacks and crime. In the US, while airport security has been federalized with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) taking the lead role, public transit security is still a local responsibility. Again, Nat Ford asserts, “As we expand our use of technologies such as data sharing and driverless vehicles, the threat of “cybersecurity” keeps growing. There are a lot of unknowns in this field, but our job is not to sit and wait. Our job is to prepare for each growing risk.”

So city transit systems are buying up the latest security systems to monitor and respond quickly to cyber and more traditional crime and potential terrorist activity. These include real time, monitored cameras on buses, trains and in transit stations with facial recognition and object identification software. Transit police are adopting military grade armaments and equipment. Gas detection and other terrorist prevention technologies are quietly being implemented in subway stations and big data usage is being deployed to better track transit customers.

By the end of 2018 autonomous automobiles and shuttle buses will become a common phenomenon as technology improvements allow their use at higher speeds, in mixed traffic and highway regulations permit their usage. More “smart cities” will use smart phone apps to offer combined mobility/public transit options to their residents centered around user choice and facilitating payments through a single gateway. Finally public transit security will be upgraded across America to help prevent any major cyber-attacks or mass casualty events.

Public Transportation has offered the same solutions of bus and rail for over half a century to the now almost 50,000,000 daily users of its services across North America. This approach is quickly changing as millennials flock to cities and ditch their cars and technology enables new approaches to unify mobility options. Brand new modes of transportation are being invented and quickly adopted including shared ride services, self-driving cars and buses, and magnetic levitation (mag lev) technologies applied in potential high speed rail and Hyperloop trains. These changes will only accelerate in the coming year.

 

© 2017 by Paul Comfort