Considerations on How to Bring Autonomous Vehicle Benefits to All

Below is a blog post from guest contributor Stacey Matlen. Stacey was an attendee at Circulate San Diego’s Autonomous/ Connected Vehicles Forum on September 28, 2017. The event focused on how autonomous and connected vehicles technology may impact transportation planning, land use, and safety.

On Thursday, September 28, 2017, Circulate San Diego brought together stakeholders from private industry, government agencies, academic institutions, and mobility thought leaders for an Autonomous/ Connected Vehicles Forum.

For a local event, it attracted quite a few distinguished speakers, including the Mayor of San Diego, along with other leaders from city, regional, state, and federal governments.

Overall, the event was extremely well-run and engaging. The event posed many thoughts to contemplate after the conference. In this blog post, I will dig into some of those thought-provoking takeaways. But first, I will explain a little bit of my background to help describe my perspective and why this forum was so relevant for someone outside the traditional transportation planning world.

For the past year, I was running a public health and mobility focused social enterprise, Cart, which coordinates rides to well-stocked grocery stores to increase access to healthy food for low-income/low-access individuals. In Q1 of 2017, we conducted a pilot with a major Midwest retail grocery store, Meijer, where we coordinated $10 roundtrip Lyft rides for anyone within a 5-mile radius of Meijer’s two Detroit locations. While this solution was needed, we ultimately recognized that our business model was not economically viable. The cost of the ride was too expensive, making it prohibitive for grocery stores to be the sole payer of both the ride subsidy and our transaction cost.

We tried getting other payers on board, such as health systems or health insurance companies, because an investment in people’s ability to access healthy food could prevent costly chronic disease rates in the future. These players were interested in our solution, but they could not justify the costs of investing in pilots to test this upstream preventative solution. We ultimately decided to shut down operations. However, I still am extremely passionate about this subject and want to continue to work on the issues of lack of access to transportation and health-enabling activities. Therefore, I decided to come to San Diego and seek out opportunities to do so.

Circulate’s Autonomous/ Connected Vehicle (AV) Forum stood out as an interesting event, because AVs have great potential for helping to solve many of our mobility challenges. With reduced transportation costs, enhanced safety features, and increased efficiencies, it could make services like Cart work in the future. I was especially interested in this event where local leaders from government, private, and academic sector were all coming together to discuss AVs.

One of my biggest fears is that this new AV technology is going to exacerbate the disparities we have today and will further separate the haves from the have nots. Luckily, I am not the only person concerned with this problem; the reoccurring theme of the forum was the utopian or dystopian fate that AVs might bring about. The big takeaway was that we need to carefully think about how we’re going to prepare for AVs to ensure that AVs create a world where all people can benefit from this new technology.

Without shared industry standards and smart government interventions and policies, we run the risk of AVs creating a world where there’s higher demand for cars and more congestion, increased urban sprawl, and the potential to further social inequalities with decreased access to mobility services for disadvantaged communities. However, we can prevent this by breaking down industry silos to work together and implement pilots to better understand how to promote shared, electric, connected, and automated (SECA) transportation.

Below are a few of the major questions and themes that were brought up at the Forum:

  • But how will the public and private sector work together and share data generated by AVs?

As cities build smart infrastructure, they’ll have valuable data about transit patterns that are useful many different stakeholders. Right now it’s not clear how that data will be distributed. Municipalities could sell this data and have it be an extra revenue stream. However, this is also subject to public record, so it is not yet clear if governments really can sell this data.  More likely, cities should share the data with the private sector so companies can reap the value. Cities can then leverage this data to bring in private investments in future infrastructure building and upkeep. 

Governments need to be smart about what type of data is needed and how exactly they’re going to use it. Plans should be put into place now to start thinking about this.

  • Who will pay for the resources needed to implement these pilots and build the necessary infrastructure?  Most likely it will be a mix of private, public, local and state.
  • Partnerships between the traditional players (automotive OEMs, transit providers, and planners) as well as nontraditional players (data scientists, etc.) need to happen to smoothly transition from AVs to shared autonomous vehicles (SAV). SAV technology needs to be seamlessly integrated in people's everyday lives in order to be adopted.
  • How will we transition from private vehicle ownership to shared vehicle ownership? And how does carsharing and ridesharing affect this transition? Carsharing tends to have the biggest impact on removing cars from the road (in comparison to other types of sharing like ridesharing, bikesharing, etc.)
  • Does ridesharing reduce public transit usage? It might. But it’s not the main driver of reduced usage, according to Dennis Desmond from MTS. Usage rates are down, but the major reason why people have reduced their use of public transit is due to private vehicle ownership; the low cost of car ownership makes it difficult for public transit to compete.
  • Will AV technology increase traffic, or reduce it? When AV technology arises, there will be a lot of temptation for selfish consumption. We’ll need policy interventions to help deal with the competing transportation desires of the individual versus the needs of the transportation system as a whole.

Overall, this forum was a great example of the types of conversations that are necessary as AVs continue to become a part of our lives. People from different industries need to come together, learn from each other, and explore ways to work together in the future.

This forum solidified my reasons for wanting to continue to work on mobility issues: my public health background will be a valuable contribution while planning for AVs to ensure new mobility technologies can be accessible to all.

To prevent this revolutionary technology from guiding us towards a dystopian future, we need to have more forums like this one which bring different stakeholders together to plan head and ensure new mobility technologies can be accessible to all.


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