Paving the way for autonomous mobility

Accomplish • Pulse #1 • 6 min
By Richard Venturi

While self-driving cars may be getting all the attention, driverless shuttles are on the cusp of reshaping urban transport. Indeed, they are one of the first modes of autonomous mobility to become operational, with tests having started in several cities in 2016 and the first fleets expected to be deployed by 2021.

Driverless electric shuttles are ushering in a new era of autonomous transport across urban areas worldwide, enhancing residents’ mobility and alleviating traffic congestion and pollution through shared transport.

The massive rise in the urban population across the globe in recent decades has placed transport in many cities under increasing strain. According to UN estimates, 67% of the world population will live in urban areas by the middle of this century. This creates an enormous challenge to develop new solutions that are efficient, lasting, adapted to the needs of users and able to provide brand new services and alleviate congested mass transit networks.

Whether it takes the form of cars, shuttles or even buses, shared autonomous mobility is the perfect solution, as its flexibility allows it to easily complement existing mass transit. More specifically, it is ideal for first and last mile mobility, connecting residential areas and final destinations to transport hubs with so-called feeder shuttles and buses.

A multide of benefits

It is difficult to overstate the advantages of shared autonomous mobility. Over the long term it will not only lower costs related to pollution, but urban residents will save money on personal car use. It also has the potential to make transport more intelligent, leading to savings from optimised services during peak and off-peak periods, with the number of shuttles adjusted accordingly. Additionally, as the technology develops, electric engines are expected tobecome less expensive than internal combustion engines, translating into further savings.

Another substantial benefit lies in their relative safety. Studies have shown that more than 90% of car accidents are caused by human error (the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] put the figure at 94% in a 2016 study). The implications are clear: less human drivers means less accidents. Beyond the direct and indirect savings that result from shared autonomous mobility solutions, they make public transport more equitable. Entire fleets of shuttles can be adapted to passengers with special needs (e.g. people in wheelchairs or with strollers) at only a minimal extra cost.

They also free up an enormous amount of parking space. A 2017 study by the OECD’s International Transport Forum (ITF) found that total parking needed for the Lisbon Metropolitan Area would plummet by 95% when shared mobility was used. This space could then be reallocated for other public uses. Surprisingly, the study also found that introducing feeder buses and shuttles leads to a substantial increase in the overall use of high-capacity mass transit services.

The marketplace at gull throttle

The private sector has caught on to the promise autonomous mobility holds for urban transport in the 21st century. The market is dynamic, with a number of different industries represented, not to mention new-comers. First and foremost there are the electric shuttle manufacturers like Keolis’partner Navya, which has been designing autonomous systems for the past ten years and today makes shuttles that can transport 15 people. Then there are car makers like Tesla and BMW and tech giants like Google.

This dynamism is reflected in the autonomous mobility solutions that are already making their presence felt in big cities around the world, where a series of pilot tests have been underway for the past couple of years.

In September 2016, Lyon in France became the first city in the world to operate a driverless shuttle bus for public transport outside a closed, private road, at the end of a tram line, taking on that last mile of commuting. Las Vegas in the US became the first North American city to test selfdriving shuttles in early 2017.

Paris is one of the latest cities to carry out such a trial, with three shuttles deployed over six months in the major Europe’s business district, La Défense. It has been specially chosen due to its density and the potential for first and last mile mobility. What’s more, it allows Navya and Keolis to perfect the shuttles’ software. For example, they have been ‘taught’ exactly when to sound their horns to alert pedestrians, brake when encountering an obstacle and to adapt their speed to pedestrians along their route.

Looking ahead, the airport operator Aéroports de Paris (ADP) has decided to use a driverless shuttle to provide its employees with an efficient link from its new headquarters to the local train station by September 2017. This project is particularly complex, as the shuttle will operate in a busy and open road network, stopping at traffic lights and crossing major intersections.

Keolis will also be carrying out a trial in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London starting in September 2017. The area is home to new neighbourhoods, green spaces, schools and nurseries, with a lot of young families and children. The trials are becoming longer, more advanced and increasingly integrated into existing transport networks and the urban fabric. They allow city officials, passengers, residents, shuttle makers and operators to test all aspects of autonomous mobility, paving the way for seamless integration into cityscapes across the globe.

Long-terme challenges

This learning curve is a key phase in the development of autonomous mobility solutions. Simply put, the complex technology has to be honed before driverless shuttles become a permanent part of the cityscape.

There are also the legal challenges that autonomous vehicles face. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) amended its 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in 2016 to allow for autonomous driving, provided that vehicles comply with UN vehicle regulations and that they can be controlled and deactivated if necessary by a human.

Different countries have taken different approaches to adapting their legal systems. In the US, five states have so far authorised self-driving vehicles. The UK, for its part, has taken another tack, preferring to let the industry come up with solutions before developing legislation. In France, the government gave the green light to tests of driverless vehicles on public roads in August 2016. Such trials are a way of progressively testing the legal framework, with new authorisations and exemptions for each test. And as the technology is tried and tested, existing legislation will be adapted.

In addition to the legal aspect, the question of insurance looms large. Drivers are set to become redundant, and the responsibility of car makers and the other manufacturers involved is certain to become an issue. Insurers will have to develop innovative insurance policies to cover novel risks. One of which is cyber criminality, with the possibility that hackers can take control of vehicles from a distance. Apart from designing secure, reliable systems, one possible way to address this is to follow the example of aircraft: having different computer networks so that if one is compromised, the others can continue to operate

Common accidents themselves pose significant problems, which raises the question of ethics. Engineers will have to programme different options that have the same level of risk so the shuttle can ‘choose’ one in the event of an emergency – the same way a human driver makes a split-second decision when faced with a dangerous situation.

Beyond these technical aspects lies as big a challenge as any: getting city dwellers to accept these newcomers to urban transport and adapt their behaviour. Like with any new technology, it takes time to win people over. But with so many advantages for cities and their residents, it is only a question of time before driverless shuttles become a mainstay of urban life. If recent experience is anything to go by, this future is right around the corner and ready to hit the road.


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