Are autonomous vehicles the first/last mile solution we’re heading toward?

I had the opportunity to test ride a Transdev self-driving electric bus today. I was really excited about it because I’ve never ridden in an autonomous vehicle (AV) before, and also the bus is super cute. (See Olli.) While I tend not to think much of self-driving cars — the concept is nice, but it wouldn’t do much in terms of reducing congestion — I might be able to get behind self-driving buses.

Before someone comes at me about putting bus operators out of work, please know that’s not what I’m advocating. Workforce transition is absolutely one of the challenges we face when it comes to integrating AVs into our existing transportation system, and optimistically I hope more qualified people than me will be able to address it. But AV technology is there and isn’t likely to go away, so we should at least give it a try, right?

So how was the ride? It was…boring! It was like any other shuttle ride and we made a slow, measured circuit around the parking lot. But while boring might seem to be antithesis to new technology, sometimes it’s the goal. A safe, boring ride is exactly what you want when you’re on a bus that drives itself.

They also let me test the bus’ sensors, namely the ones that tell the bus to stop if it senses an obstacle in the road. I stood in front of the bus as it rolled towards me, and it stopped approximately three feet away — close enough for me to hit the bus, but not for the bus to touch me.

Joe also finds the self-driving bus amusing.

As you can tell from the photos, the bus I rode is fairly small. It can carry a maximum of 12 people and is meant to work as a first mile/last mile solution, connecting people to the greater transit network. If Metro were ever to test their use, I could see the buses being used to help people reach some of our busier stations. Or, as my colleague Joe Lemon suggested, they could be used in circulation to get people to and from Memorial Park Station and the Rose Bowl (or maaaaybe from future Crenshaw/LAX Line to new Inglewood stadium?).

Of course, there’s still a lot to consider before AVs become a thing. There are government regulations to contend with, and a whole host of other questions — my other colleague Steve Hymon asked many of those questions here — that need to be answered before AVs can edge toward being mainstream. I’d be interested to see a Metro pilot program that involves AVs implemented. (FYI our Office of Innovation takes unsolicited proposals and is looking at on-demand services).

So what do you think? Are AVs the “mobility of the future” or just an unnecessary step between now and jetpacks? Let me know in the comments.

16 replies

    • Hi,

      The test ride vehicle traveled at about 5mph, but it can travel at higher speeds on the road. I’m not sure what the maximum speed is. Transdev is currently testing the service in Florida, where users can use a mobile phone app to request a shuttle which will drop them off at select bus stops. You can also check their website for more info.

      Anna Chen
      Writer, The Source

  1. So all I have to do to hold up service is stand in front of this gadget? And there’s no penalty for me to do so? Sounds like a real winning solution!

  2. Woah! These autonomous buses are so small! These truly are the future of public transportation. Would be interesting to see them traveling on the streets of Los Angeles!

  3. I see no purpose behind these type of vehicles. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it is good for society or necessary. Driving is not so difficult. I have been driving for a living for 30 years, so I am confused why these vehicles are being considered. They are not flawless also. There have been several incidents where these vehicles have gone through red lights.

    • Hi Mark,

      Fair points, but I also think AV have potential to provide those who are disabled or no longer able to drive with mobility options.

      Thanks,

      Anna Chen
      Writer, The Source

      • Being older and less able than I used to be, and totally dependent on public transit, I have to agree, Anna. I’m looking forward to the potential of AV getting me to the subway and train stations much more easily! 🙂

    • I could drive, but I choose to take the train. (In fact, I took a job here versus Seattle because I knew I’d have more choices because of Metro’s train network.) Of course, I have to drive 2 miles to the station (where they’re going to soon charge me for parking – I tried the bus but it was a .5 mile walk and they were too infrequent that it was adding 30-40 minutes to my commute) and ride 1.5 miles on a bikeshare bike at the other end. I took a Lyft home from BUR the other night because the I didn’t want my wife to have to get the kids out of bed after my flight was delayed getting me home after their bedtime. These type of transportation choices would be great options for these short-haul / on-demand type services and if they existed today, we could probably sell a car.

  4. I think it can be used on the Orange Line during the overnight hours should Metro decides to run the line 24 hours a day. During the midnight hours, ridership is low and the street intersections are not busy.

    • They will still take up space on the road. They might be able to squeak out some small gains by using road space more efficiently, but I think they will be programmed to drive on the conservative side and I think any space they free up will, in time, be consumed by even more cars.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source