How will autonomous vehicles impact Metro is a question oft-asked of our agency’s innovation office.
By Joshua Schank / Chief Innovation Officer
When you have a title like “Chief Innovation Officer in the Office of Extraordinary Innovation at LA Metro” people tend to ask you about the most cutting edge transportation technology they can conjure. At the moment, the most common questions I get are about the Hyperloop and Autonomous Vehicles. These are exciting and new technologies, but alone they do not overcome long-standing policy and safety challenges.
Hyperloop as a technology is interesting, but its issues ultimately boil down to the same involving High-Speed Rail, Maglev, Monorail, Personal Rapid Transit or really anything that includes vehicles on a new fixed-guideway on its own right of way. Securing rights of way, especially in urban areas where they are most useful, is very difficult and/or expensive. Tunneling tends to be the “easier” way to go but is usually very pricey and time-consuming. Identifying right-of-way above ground means barreling through places where people live, which requires a lengthy and expensive environmental process. Any new technology such as Hyperloop faces a greater uphill battle in this respect because now you are trying to get through a difficult and/or expensive process AND use public funds for an unproven technology. Not impossible, but certainly not a slam-dunk.
Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) are a more interesting case. Here, the technology can come to life with or without an Environmental Impact Report. In theory, the private sector could simply offer the technology in the marketplace and it could transform our lives. This gets people very excited and leads them to ask me what LA Metro is doing about AVs.
The potential of AVs is indeed exciting. When I was President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, we developed some of the earliest and most widely circulated initial research on AVs and public policy. The potential safety benefits from AVs are enormous given that over 30,000 people are killed by vehicles annually in the United States, and even more are injured. Just as we have seen automation dramatically reduce fatalities in the aviation industry, the potential for the same benefit is present for motor vehicles.
However, the safety benefit is not typically what captures people’s imagination. People tend to leap way ahead to a world of electrified AVs tightly roaming the streets, bringing shared rides to any individual at a moment’s notice, potentially eliminating the need for parking, reducing traffic congestion, eliminating pollution and delivering world peace. These fantasy scenarios may indeed come to pass (well, maybe not the peace part). But Metro has to deliver innovation and improvements in mobility for our constituents now. We cannot wait for technology to be our savior.
So when it comes to AVs, we are laser-focused on safety. Long before we even think about getting to AVs that do all the work, there will be an opportunity to put technology in our vehicles in a way that improves the operator and customer experiences, while also reducing collisions. This semi-autonomous technology is similar to the technology that is being rolled out in the private vehicle market, such as lane-keeping and autopilot capabilities. In fact, we received an unsolicited proposal along these lines and we will be testing certain technology features on our buses that may be able to prevent collisions with pedestrians and bicycles. We’ve also been exploring the idea of providing operators with more information that could help them provide a smoother and safer ride. We encourage others to come forward with their ideas.
These new safety features are the model that is the most likely outcome of the advances in AV technology. Look again to aviation as an example. Substantial technological advances have dramatically improved safety on airplanes. We even have Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to perform certain tasks. But we still need pilots on planes that carry passengers, and we will for a very long time. Because if/when something goes wrong, you will want a human being on the scene.
The same is true for road vehicles. In fact, road vehicles encounter many more challenges and unforeseen obstacles than aircraft. Airplanes operate in a tightly controlled environment with air traffic controllers directing planes onto specific routes. Vehicles operate in a loosely controlled environment with pedestrians, bicyclists, millions of other vehicles, trees, debris and other drivers who may be checking Facebook instead of concentrating on making that right turn.
So for now, I tell people that LA Metro is excited to see how autonomous technology can improve the safety of travelers in Los Angeles County. That may not be as exciting as robot cars that also do your laundry, but it is something of critical importance that is actually achievable. If we can reduce traffic deaths with technology, that would be truly extraordinary. Bring us your ideas!