The future is now


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.

2 replies

  1. Very glad to hear about the OEI. And the article mentions many good points, especially this one, which gets to the heart of what the OEI needs to be looking at: “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.”

    Just yesterday, Singapore started the worlds first commercial autonomous vehicle service. Uber and Google are also working on autonomous vehicle systems, so this will be more common in the very near future. So what does the OEI need to focus on? Very simple actually: The Last Mile.

    The largest impediment to using Metro’s large and expanding transit network is the last mile problem. Unless you live within the magic 1/4 radius circle of your nearest transit stop, and your destination also falls within a similar 1/4 mile of a transit stop, the vast majority of your commute is spent walking the “last mile”. This is where fully autonomous vehicles specifically designed to serve a small geographic area (the last mile) around a transit stop come into play.

    Google’s small pod cars they are testing are a good example of this. Instead of having to walk 3/4 of a mile to the train station, you simply walk to the corner and let the system know that you will be on the corner in two minutes. The AV picks you up, and your normal 15 minute walk to the train station is replaced with a 3 minute ride. The AV can also pick up others along the same route who are ready to head to the same station. By doing this, the 1/4 mile radius typically associated with transit use is expanded to a much larger area.

    Metro needs to simply look at population density around transit stations, transit use of those stations, and ease of implementing a “feeder system” of AV’s to use fixed routes that can best serve the train station in question. This could be done in a couple years at most. The OEI should be contacting Uber and Google to see if they can partner up with Metro in a “pilot program” to implement exactly this kind of system around one of Metro’s train stations. A perfect opportunity for both Metro and the commercial entity to work out the bugs, see what effect it has on ridership (I think we all know the answer to this), and then start expanding the range of the AV’s around the station, as well as deploying the system to other stations that would benefit.

    Most train stations already have dedicated bus stops that feed the light rail system. The AV’s could simply drop off the people right there. Same for picking them up for the ride home. The AV’s could be smart enough to decide whether they can drop each individual off right at their door, or simply drop off at the nearest corner depending on how busy the system is.

    The biggest hurdle is getting regulatory permission to allow the EV’s to operate autonomously, though having a driver present in the early deployments (like Singapore) would make that less challenging. After that, it only software, and Uber and Google would be able to implement that in a short time, especially given the small geographic area that would be served around each station.

    I am very much looking forward to see what Metro and the OEI come up with in this regard.