Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation is tasked with identifying the best ideas in transportation from around the country and around the world and evaluating them for implementation at LA Metro. This is the first in a series of blog posts from the OEI that will look at variety of topics of interest to you and us.
What does Elon Musk’s Master Plan for Tesla Have to do with Metro?
Ten years ago, entrepreneur Elon Musk set out to disrupt the auto industry with Tesla – his new line of electric vehicles (EVs). The idea was simple: use the best minds in technology and design to create a brilliant new product that would offer revolutionary user experience for drivers, all with zero emissions.
He started with an expensive sports car, and then invested in developing a (slightly) more affordable luxury sedan. He then used the sedan to develop an even more (actually) affordable model. Starting from the top, he sought to make EV technology available at every price point.
While questions remain about Tesla’s long-term future, so far Musk has largely succeeded.
At the same time, the world is being disrupted by on-demand shared mobility in the form of companies like Lyft, Uber, Via and others. Even more options and models offered by autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies may be around the bend.
So Musk has a new idea: make sure that the future maximizes the benefits of EVs, shared mobility and AVs. How will he accomplish that? In part, by thinking about how AVs, EVs, and shared rides can all be integrated to offer the best of each.
So what does this all have to do with public transportation? Won’t transit be obsolete in a world run by self-driving cars?
Not even close. In fact, Musk speaks right to that in his new Master Plan with plans to develop Tesla’s version of “high passenger-density urban transport.” This is currently called a ‘bus.’
So if the future is now, the question we ask is, “how does Metro fit in?” Well, since we have one of the country’s largest bus systems (in addition to trains and bikes!), which we make available to thousands every day, transit agencies such as Metro are well positioned to act as an early adopter and facilitator of these technologies.
AVs and Transit Are Natural Partners
Just because cars in the future might drive themselves doesn’t mean that traffic will disappear. Even if AVs use road space more efficiently, there will still be a limit to the number of cars that can fit on a road, and if everyone uses one at the same time, AVs will be stuck in the same traffic we have now.
Metro’s high-capacity rapid transportation network can provide seamless connections with the AV network to ensure that trips are as fast and efficient as possible. Most cars are only in use about four percent of the time – 96 percent of the day, they are sitting parked. So in addition to being cleaner and safer, autonomous vehicles can potentially be operated for more hours each day, but with fewer hours of your time needed to operate them.
That means that a single AV used by many different people over the course of a day, which could potentially free space on roads and in parking lots for other uses. Public transit can also benefit by investing in driver-assist AV technologies that can help our operators reduce conflicts with other vehicles in mixed traffic, complete their routes more safely and efficiently, and concentrate more closely on the customer service and safety that is central to our vision.
Transit is the Original Shared Mobility
Shared mobility may be all the rage in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, but Metro and its predecessor agencies have been providing shared mobility since day one.
The key to shared mobility is providing the right tool for the job. Shorter trips might be well served by a shared car or van, but for moving lots of people efficiently through a modern city, as Mr. Musk implies, transit is still the best tool for the job. How happy will customers be if they can hail a ride right away, but then are stuck in traffic for 30 minutes longer because the streets are jam-packed with congestion?
This is how Metro fits in. We must explore how we can (or should) best partner with on-demand platforms, or even integrate their technology, to improve service for customers. As technology evolves, that might even mean new options that utilize virtual bus stops and mobile technology to provide service that is partly for fully demand-responsive, only running when it’s needed and rerouting to meet you where you are.
New data supports this idea, and shows that transit and shared mobility go hand in hand, with the number of so-called “supersharers” – people who are just as happy to share a train or a bus as a car or a bike – increasing each year. That makes the network more flexible and helps everyone get around a little faster.
From Here to There
Science fiction author William Gibson once said that the future is already here, it’s just poorly distributed. We may be a long way from the day when you order a self-driving electric car to your doorstep, but new technologies are driving the evolution of transportation every day.
There are countless steps that Metro can take right now to improve, adapt and flourish. Innovation means a willingness to try new things without knowing for sure that they’ll work. It means learning from these trials to find out what works and how, always seeking to get a little better and a little smarter. The future is here. Innovation is how we distribute it.