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With the launch of self-driving ride-share service 'Waymo One,' what’s next for cities?

Google's autonomous vehicle offshoot and other AVs claim to help relieve urban area issues — but there are four questions they must answer first.

On Dec. 5, Waymo launched "Waymo One," the first commercial ride-share service using self-driving cars in the United States. This long-awaited service fulfills the company’s self-imposed deadline to start a commercial ride-share service by the end of 2018. Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, has been operating in the Phoenix metropolitan area since 2016 and is an industry leader in autonomous vehicles, with over 10 million miles driven on public roads, and nearly 7 billion miles driven in simulations. The launch of Waymo One does come with limitations.

It is only available to existing Waymo early-riders, a program which has allowed about 400 people to use Waymo ride-share since 2017 while the company continued to test its technology. The only thing that really has changed is that these early-riders must pay for the ride-sharing service. Additionally, safety drivers will be in each Waymo One vehicle, so while the vehicles can drive themselves in nearly all situations, a human driver can take over when needed.

Although the plans for expansion of the service remain uncertain, the launch of Waymo One is a significant milestone that cities need to take note of. AV technology rapidly has advanced in the last decade, but until now, AVs have been only in the testing phase. In many places, they have been confined to closed campus areas, but increasingly over the last few years, they have been tested on public roads (where allowed), especially in California and Arizona. Many argue that more rigorous safety standards are needed before AVs should be allowed on public roads, but the only way to know how an AV will operate in the real world is to put them in it.

In the 1920s, when the automobile became widespread, cities had to quickly adapt. The same is true now. The automobile reshaped urban infrastructures, planning and how we live. It also created cities that are car-dependent, huge public health costs from local air pollution and has been a major contributor to climate change. While plenty of uncertainties remain about the maturation of AV technologies, that should not be an excuse for inaction.

AV technology rapidly has advanced in the last decade, but until now, AVs have only been in the testing phase.
The question now is, how can we use these early moments in the development and deployment of AVs to map out the policy, planning and infrastructure changes that need to happen to guide a mobility transition that leads to better, more livable and sustainable cities?

At the Center for Smart Cities and Regions at Arizona State University, we have been working with local governments and industry representatives to identify the opportunities and risks that AVs present to cities. This work has identified early partnership opportunities, policies and potential pilot projects that should be developed to ensure that AVs work for urban communities. These are based on interviews with decision-makers and urban planners, public and expert forums and research on emerging city, regional, state and federal policy regarding AVs. Here, we share some of these results, identifying four core challenges for communities and several ways citizens and governments can develop approaches to AVs now that will help ensure they work for them.

Key challenges

The proponents of AVs and the many companies developing them often cite the numerous benefits AVs will have. These include safety, and the potential to remove human error from driving, the cause of over 90 percent of all crashes. Additionally, they tout the fact that AVs will eliminate congestion, something that traffic engineers have longed to do for nearly a century without success.

Many AV companies also claim that there will be benefits to existing infrastructure, especially public transportation, because AVs can be used to get people to and from mass transit. Lastly, they claim that a reduction in cost of ride-share by AVs will allow more people to transition away from private car ownership. However, none of these outcomes is guaranteed, and for each point, the opposite outcome is perhaps more likely, unless cities step in to ensure they do not.

Our research has identified four core challenges regarding how AVs can help cities meet their goals. It comes as little surprise that these mirror the four points above, which proponents claim AVs will address.

1. AVs are not a technological fix to congestion problems

An AV is still a car, takes up the same amount of space and has the same requirements for parking. As suggested above, AVs might be able to address congestion and traffic issues if they are primarily shared (which seems to be the favored option for now), but numerous academic studies show this is not necessarily the case and that even a ride-sharing model of AV use can increase traffic and not help with congestion.

2. AVs are not a magic bullet to achieving vision zero goals

Many sensors used in AVs still do not correctly identify pedestrians and cyclists, which poses serious safety concerns to these vulnerable street users, especially as the first use of AVs will be in more dense urban centers where people walk and bike more. As the Uber collision in Tempe in March as well as other autonomous vehicle failures, including airplane crashes, demonstrate, there is still plenty of room for new kinds of technological failures as well as human error.

3. AVs do not automatically support public transit

Many companies claim that their AVs will help people reach public transit, which will boost ridership, when in reality, people are much more likely to use an AV to get all the way to their destination and not switch between modes. This is the case for the same reason most people already do not ride public transit — driving is simply a faster and more convenient way to travel in most U.S. cities. The places where this might actually work are where public transit is as fast or faster than driving, which means continuing to invest in quality public transit should remain a goal of many cities and regions.

4. Equity and accessibility are the most pressing issues facing AVs

Waymo One looks to cost about the same as Uber or Lyft at present. Without lowering this cost, the service will not benefit low income households. If AVs remain exclusively priced so that only those who can afford to use them benefit, we will see existing inequities in transportation persist. AVs and ridesharing also might alter investments in public transit with significant equity and access impacts.

So, given these challenges, what can cities do?

Near-term action items for cities

First, cities need to think beyond seeing AVs as only cars. Many AV companies, such as Local Motors and May Mobility, developing this technology are developing small shuttles, neighborhood circulators and other types of micro-transit. These have the ability to travel on neighborhood streets, move multiple passengers and truly transform mobility, especially in sprawling urban areas such as Phoenix. One way to explore these benefits is to build partnerships with AV companies — both those developing micro-transit and those developing more traditional ride-share services.

While many cities are limited in what they can do to regulate AVs, partnering with the AV companies in mutually beneficial ways is a viable option, and one that many AV companies are willing to pursue. Local Motors just announced the winners of the Olli Fleet Challenge. In the Phoenix area, Waymo has partnered with the regional transit agency, Valley Metro, to help use AVs to meet first/last mile goals. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, May Mobility is partnered with the city to conduct a one-year pilot to test their AV shuttles as a supplement to existing public transportation.

Many AV companies, such as Local Motors and May Mobility, developing this technology are developing small shuttles, neighborhood circulators and other types of micro-transit.
These types of projects allow cities to rethink how people get around the city and envision a future with more transportation options. Simultaneously using AVs to reduce automobile dependence also will enable cities to rethink roadway infrastructure. Some talk about the ability to use AVs to move more cars in the same amount of roadway space, but another option allows cities to move the same or fewer cars in less roadway space, meaning that cities can reclaim parts of the public right-of-way for non-automobile uses, whether it is for wider sidewalks, bike paths or even green infrastructure.

Cities must not lose sight of their core goals and values. Cities need to take the time now to re-articulate these goals and envision how AVs and other emerging mobility technologies fit into the city and how they might help or hinder the city from achieving their goals. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, have been proactive in doing just this, with the Smart Automated Vehicles Initiative (SAVI) in Portland and the New Mobility Playbook (PDF) in Seattle.

In articulating their goals in relationship to AVs and other emerging technologies, cities should pay particular care to several core concerns. These include:

  • Ensuring AVs promote an equitable and accessible transportation system
  • Developing governance structures for the collection, use and sharing of data (both of individuals and from vehicles and companies)
  • Promote public safety by developing training protocols and integrating public safety into partnerships and pilot projects
  • Review infrastructure, zoning and land use requirements for AVs and ensure that they promote innovation while also supporting sustainable, mixed-use urban centers
  • Put in place the mechanisms required to learn from pilot projects and be able to easily adapt and modify the transportation system based on what is learned

Autonomous vehicles are a rapidly emerging technology that has the ability to transform transportation and cities in ways that are difficult to predict. Many uncertainties exist as to the impacts that AVs will have on society, on individuals, on work, on travel, on cities, for sustainability and many other areas.

What is clear is that if cities are to benefit from the introduction of autonomous vehicles, they need to take a leading role in guiding the use of this emerging technology and creating a new urban transportation future.

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