Transportation is one of the fastest-changing and most exciting sectors in the global economy today. Connected & autonomous vehicles, shared mobility concepts, and the shift to electric vehicles (together referred to as CASE) are some of the most exciting avenues.
At ARC’s 24th annual Industry & City Forum, we hosted a “Future of Mobility” session where four leaders in the mobility space joined us to share their perspectives and experiences around the CASE transition. In this article, we will take a look at the presentation from Clayton Tino, CTO of Beep, sharing his company’s experiences deploying an autonomous shuttle service at the Lake Nona community in Orlando.
To start the session, I introduced some of the shortcomings of the current transportation system as well as their causes, focusing on the situation in the US.
- There are 275 million cars on US roads, for an adult population of 250 million
- Those cars have an average occupancy rate of 1.59 people
- Most of them remain parked well over 90% of the time
- Nearly 40,000 Americans die on our roads each year, mostly due to human error
- Of the 200,000 annual US deaths from air pollution, 50000 are the result of vehicle tailpipe emissions
- The transport sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the economy
- We lose over thirty billion hours and nearly $90b to traffic congestion
- US cities are mostly built for cars – with pedestrians and urban life often superseded by space for roads and parking
These issues arise from a century-old paradigm: the use of private, low-occupancy, fossil fuel powered vehicles for nearly every journey taken, operated by error-prone and increasingly distracted human drivers.
Addressing these issues requires changing the paradigm. Reducing vehicle miles travelled by moving to higher density and smaller footprint modes of transport, replacing human drivers with safer autonomous vehicle technology, and powering vehicles with electric powertrains are all promising avenues.
The Human Side of Autonomy
Beep operates a small fleet of autonomous, electric shuttles running a fixed circular route within Lake Nona. Locals use the service to get from the residential area to their job or a night out in the commercial center, while leaving their private cars at home. It’s good for congestion, air quality, the environment, and more convenient than finding a parking place — a glimpse into the future of mobility.
That being said, introducing robot cars to the general public is untested ground. Having provided over fourteen thousand rides in its first few months of operation, Beep has gained valuable experience doing just that.
Having a person on board the shuttle is currently a legal requirement where Beep operates, but according to Mr. Tino, the company found the practice is also quite useful to make the passengers feel comfortable and explain all the quirks of an autonomous vehicle. He likened this to a high-tech version of early elevator operators.
Mr. Tino went on to say that the “human factors involved are huge. It’s not just the vehicle control system itself but it’s how you plan, how you account for the way other vehicles and other road users interact with your service.”
The first passengers were early adopters excited about the technology, followed later by the broader community. Beep has received mostly positive feedback according to Mr. Tino, though not without speed bumps: “So we’re starting to see more of those people becoming comfortable with the idea of autonomy. Where we’re still trying to make inroads is the other drivers in the community. People aren’t used to interacting with AVs on the roadway…we have displays on the vehicle to tell other drivers exactly what the vehicle is doing: slowing down, stopping, turning left”. He went on to describe continuing challenges for AV operators in adeptly interacting with disabled, elderly, and hearing or visually impaired riders, especially when the human operator is no longer present in the future.
Mr. Tino cited some other challenges for AVs such as the remaining shortcomings of self-driving software in navigating busy streets, as well as high vehicle costs, mostly driven by the price of the on-board sensor suite. Beyond technology, he noted that the lack of a standardized safety validation process from the federal government results in the company having to comply with piecemeal regulation that varies from one jurisdiction to the next.
During the panel discussion, one of us mentioned that someday autonomous operation will be boring. Mr. Tino responded, “If one day it’s boring that means we’ve done something very right because things are going really well”.
Beep is creating a new kind of mobility service, and the company is building on its early success in Lake Nona with a rapid expansion to communities in multiple US states, and is even using its vehicles to transport COVID-19 test samples from a testing center to the lab facility at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, without an attendant on board.
With the potential to reduce accidents and lower mobility costs, vehicle autonomy is an exciting element of the CASE transition. In part two of this series, we will look at another session presentation given by Professor Harish Chintakunta of the Advanced Mobility Institute at Florida Polytechnic — a leading center of autonomous system testing.