With autonomous vehicles, smart cities need to be in the driver's seat

Thu, 2018-01-25 15:20 -- Kevin Ebi

Autonomous vehicles are one of the top interest areas for cities these days. And when I talk to elected officials and transportation planners at our Readiness Workshops or at Smart Cities Week, many ask how autonomous vehicles will impact mobility in cities.

The better question to ask is how cities can impact autonomous vehicles to get more benefits from them.

Autonomous vehicles certainly have the potential to improve safety and decrease congestion. But they could be even more effective if the city’s traffic data could help guide cars to optimal routes. Or if the vehicles were part of a unified mobility service. Or use data collected by the vehicles as a tool to engineer safer streets.

It boils down to this: A strong digital infrastructure helps you get more from your physical infrastructure. Are autonomous vehicles something that will merely happen to your city? Or will your city use them as a tool to improve livability, workability and sustainability? — Kevin Ebi

If you’re trying to figure out what autonomous vehicles will do to mobility in your city, you’re going to be left behind. Experts on a smart cities panel at the Consumer Electronics Show said the cities that will thrive are the ones helping to shape how the vehicles are used.

The autonomous vehicles are coming. Council Partners Daimler and Ford are among those working on them and they say the vehicles could be ready in just a few short years. But relatively few cities are preparing for them. And that’s troubling because their true potential is unlocked only through digital infrastructure improvements.

Autonomous vehicles thrive on smart roads
Perhaps the greatest illustration of what smart infrastructure can do is in the area of parking. Council Lead Partner Cisco says nearly a third of the traffic congestion downtown in some cities is caused by drivers trying to find a place to park. Some cities are using sensors to track available spaces. Fed directly into cars, that data could get cars off the road faster.

Extending that vision, the city’s data could help direct the vehicles around incidents, or to steer them away from particular areas during busy events. Even though traffic data is available through apps, the results will be much stronger if cities are an active part of that equation.

And the data should also be able to flow the other way. Autonomous vehicles are essentially roving platforms of sensors. If the city establishes a strong communications network, the vehicles could beam road condition and other information back to the city in real-time.

All of this, however, requires a real-time, citywide communications platform.

Think of mobility as a service
For some cities, the idea is to eventually eliminate the need for residents to own their own cars. But to make the greatest progress, cities need to do more than simply replace private vehicles with public cars. Autonomous vehicles need to be part of an integrated transportation platform — filling gaps left by other modes.

Council Associate Partner HERE aims to help cities move to a mobility platform where transit, cars (everything from taxis to shared vehicles), bikes, planes, and so on, work together to help people get where they need to go.

Need to build trust
While the automakers insist autonomous vehicles are just down the road, surveys show that most people aren’t quite ready for them.

The latest AAA survey finds nearly two-thirds of Americans are afraid to ride in autonomous vehicles. That is progress, however. AAA found nearly 80% were afraid of them this time a year ago.

Looking deeper at the results, AAA found that millennials are much more trusting. In fact, just over half said they would ride in a self-driving car. Men are also significantly more trusting than women both when it comes to riding in autonomous vehicles and sharing the road with them.

A growing number of cities are participating in autonomous vehicle trials, with some using a phased approach to gradually give the vehicles more freedom once safety milestones are met. That may help. People may also be more welcoming if they perceive great benefits to their own ability to get around.