An Autonomous Vehicle Strategy for Smart Cities

I live in the Valley now, and it’s impossible to go a day without someone mentioning Autonomous Vehicles. It is an incredibly rich discussion space. Some of the topics of debate include:

  • When will it be technically possible for cars to be fully autonomous, not requiring a human driver to fulfill safety-critical functions? (This is typically referred to as “Level 4” or “Level 5” autonomy).[1] Most auto-OEMs are aiming for 2020-2022, Tesla’s most recent assessment seems to be 2018.
  • What is the best business model to introduce autonomous vehicles? We have Tesla, which sells autonomous cars to individuals. We have the OEMs and tech companies (Uber, Ford, GM-Lyft partnership), which plan to, or have already, introduced autonomous vehicles as fleets for ride-sharing. I recently spoke to Rahul Sonnad from Tesloop, whose autonomous vehicles will only provide long-haul car journeys that compete with short-haul flights (think the LA to Las Vegas journey).[2]
  • When the market settles, will we see vehicles owned and operated by a few large coalitions of companies (each having the holy trinity of fleet management – manufacturing – design and software), or will it continue to be as diverse as it is today? I have met autonomous vehicle start-ups that plan to manufacture their own autonomous vehicles and disrupt major OEMs. On the other hand, even the richest companies (like Waymo, previous under GoogleX) have announced that they won’t get into the business of manufacturing cars. It’s just too costly to set it all up, and is best left in the hands of the OEMs.

 

Comparatively, I don’t hear as much debate about how cities should think about their autonomous vehicle strategy. I think this is incredibly important. Cities need to plan ahead to make the technology work for their people, instead of reacting to technology and business models as they arise.

I discussed this topic at the Worlds Fair Nano with my good friend Elliot Katz (who is the co-chair of DLA Piper’s Connected and Self Driving Car Practice). 

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Summarizing four points here

1. Introducing autonomous vehicles shouldn’t be an end in itself. Smart Cities should aim for shared mobility and deploy autonomous vehicles towards this goal.

Shared mobility is essential for cities that struggle with land constraints and intensifying populations. To solve the problem of congested roads and unhappy commuters, we need less vehicles on the road. This requires a strong push towards shared mobility (and away from vehicle ownership). I write more about it here.

Fully autonomous vehicles will contribute significantly to the objective of shared mobility especially if they are deployed in fleets (think Uber, but with autonomous vehicles instead of drivers). When autonomous vehicles are deployed in fleets, operators can dynamically size the fleet – injecting new cars when demand surges, and deploying them to less-crowded outskirts when demand falls. Theoretically, you would get rides faster and more reliability, while cutting down on “surge pricing”. These cars will be constantly on the move, never taking up precious real estate by parking for lunch or waiting at the curbside for a next job. This will free up land for other purposes, especially in the crowded downtown areas.

Cities should carefully consider the allocation of private versus shared autonomous vehicles. If the objective is shared mobility, the optimal scenario is for all autonomous vehicles to be shared: either deployed in fleets, or for privately-owned vehicles to be shared among a smaller group of family members and friends. While this does not necessitate excluding private autonomous vehicles, how cities allocate road-space to private vs shared vehicles will determine the extent to which they will achieve shared mobility.

There are many policy levers to consider: from quotas for privately-owned vehicles (which Singapore employs), to incentives for private car owners to share their vehicles in limited capacities. When cars are connected, it is easy to design these incentives based on real-time information. For example, a car owner can receive an offer to avoid a road toll if they pick-up someone else along the route.

 

2. Introduce autonomous vehicles in a way that builds broad-based public acceptance – don’t just appeal to the 20% of early adopters.

Many have pointed out that one of the biggest challenges to autonomous vehicle deployment is broad-based societal acceptance. There will be maximum efficiency and safety gains when autonomous vehicles are deployed at scale, and this can only be achieved if a large majority of city dwellers is comfortable riding autonomous vehicles.

Cities need to introduce autonomous vehicles in a way that builds broad societal acceptance.

  • Unlike the US, where autonomous vehicles are tested on public roads, Singapore has introduced them in designated trial areas. For example, autonomous taxis by Nutonomy ply 12km of public road space in the One-North neighbourhood in Singapore. Autonomous electric buses ply public roads in the Jurong district. Soon, on-demand autonomous shuttles provide rides on Sentosa, an island dedicated to tourism and recreation.
  • The Government works closely with AV companies to ensure that the testing routes provide sufficient challenge, but are not too far out of the vehicles capabilities such that it creates dangerous scenarios. We also work closely on the requirements for autonomous vehicle testing, and on after-action reviews when accidents occur.

While this seems like an arduous process for both company and Government, it is a long-term investment towards shared mobility.

  • It is better for accidents to happen within limited contexts. In this early stage of testing, accidents provide valuable lessons that will lead to improvements in the technology. In late 2016, Nutonomy had its first accident with a lorry in the One-North trial area. Fortunately – and to some extent by design – the impact was limited and no one was injured. It is incredibly important to public perception that these accidents happen in a limited context with no fatalities, unlike what happened with Tesla earlier last year.
  • The Government’s commitment to working with AV companies gives assurance that there is an added layer of accountability for the safety of these vehicles.
  • These trials have arguably piqued Singaporeans’ interest in riding autonomous vehicles. While Nutonomy limits the pool of people who can bid on their autonomous taxi service, it is still more accessible than having to purchase a private autonomous car to experience riding in one.

 

3. Work with AV companies on your regulatory approach to autonomous vehicles

One additional benefit of a city working closely with AV companies on autonomous vehicle trials is that it creates a space for a meeting of minds. Unlike many US states, Singapore has not yet introduced regulations towards autonomous vehicles. Instead, we work with companies on trials that shape our thinking on the appropriate regulatory approach. At the same time, companies have given feedback that it is useful to understand the Government’s concerns so that they can address these concerns at the design stage.

4. Finally, invest in autonomous vehicles other than cars!

While autonomous cars receive the most attention, other forms of autonomous vehicles hold incredible promise for the objective of shared mobility. For example, if a city has autonomous freight and autonomous utility vehicles, these activities can be done in the dead of the night, when commuters aren’t trying to move around. This frees up road space in the day, and makes for a better commuting experience for everyone.

Singapore is investing in both autonomous freight and autonomous utility concepts.

In conclusion, Smart Cities should never deploy technology for its own sake. They should define their objectives and target their time, money and policy interventions in a way that achieves these objectives. Transport is just one area – this applies to healthcare, education, housing, and any issue that a Smart City deals with!

[1] http://www.techrepublic.com/article/autonomous-driving-levels-0-to-5-understanding-the-differences/

[2] He believes that the market for short-haul car journeys within cities will be commoditized – people won’t care what type of autonomous vehicle they get as long as it’s cheap and fast. It will be difficult for smaller companies to compete. On the other hand, there will be room for significant differentiation in services for long-haul car journeys.

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Three ways to build a transportation system that serves the most vulnerable

So far, I’ve talked about how a seamless and enjoyable commute, sans car ownership, can go a long way towards mitigating the experience of inequality in a city.

But transportation systems, even the very best, will never serve everyone equally. Where the transportation system is not inclusive, the cost is borne by some of the most vulnerable in society.

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  • People who do not just need first and last mile transport – they need first and last meter transport. This includes the growing number of elderly (>65 years old), whose population will triple by 2030 in Singapore. It also includes those who have physical disabilities through accidents, illness or congenital conditions. Where the transportation system fails to provide first and last meter support, their caregivers bear the cost. When someone, (especially in a low-income household) leaves the workforce to be a full-time caregiver, there is a huge impact on the financial wellbeing of the family. In a survey by AgingCare.com 62% of caregivers said the cost of caring for a parent had impacted their ability to plan for their own financial future.
  • People who cannot afford rides. In my college years, I volunteered with Homefront, an organization that serves the homeless in New Jersey. I vividly remember talking to a mother whose children only ever ate canned food and hot dogs because they stayed in a Motel on Route 1, and it was too expensive to get to soup kitchens for a proper meal. A once-a-week supermarket trip was all they could afford. In this case, the cost is borne by the children, in the form of health and wellness.
  • People who live or work in inaccessible areas, where it does not make economic sense to deploy a public bus or even a ride-sharing car because there is so little demand. Where the transportation system does not provide, the cost is borne by the individuals or companies who have to cater private transport.

 

None of these groups are mutually exclusive. In fact, I hazard a guess that the number of families who fulfill at least two of these three conditions is not small, and will grow with the forces of aging and inequality.

For cities to provide a truly inclusive transportation experience, we need to explore three ideas:

  1. Closing the first-and-last meter transport gap through community participation

Currently, caregivers are responsible for the first-and-last meter transport gap. If 85-year old Jim needs to go to the clinic, his caregiver helps him onto the wheelchair at home, takes the elevator to the ground floor, and helps him board either the bus or the taxi. When he arrives at the clinic, his caregiver helps him out of the bus, and into the clinic for registration.

Can volunteers fill the first-and-last meter transport gap instead? For example, when Jim orders his ride to the clinic, can a request be blasted to volunteers who are in the 200-yard radius of his home or destination? It can be a simple five to ten minute volunteering stint – helping Jim out of his home and onto the bus, or out of the bus and into the clinic for registration.

With one click of a button, Jim should be able to pick and pay for his transport menu to the clinic, and get first-and-last meter support from the community. Volunteers who choose to be in the network can do good in bite-sized chunks. They don’t need to go out of their way – they receive alerts as they go about their daily lives. Perhaps we can lighten the load of caregivers.

This idea has taken off with apps like GoodGym, where runners can sign up to visit an elderly person or help with one-off tasks while on their running route. It would be important to integrate these efforts with our transportation networks so that people like Jim can enjoy seamless transportation experiences and live independently in the community, as many elderly desire.

 

  1. Closing the affordability and accessibility gap through public-private partnerships

Take Zara, the mother of four living in a Motel on Route 1 in New Jersey. Stranded because there are no public transportation options along Route 1, while ride sharing and taxis are too expensive.

It may not make sense for the Government to provide a public bus that passes by her Motel, simply because there is too little demand. I’ve personally experienced this. I used to live in a relatively inaccessible area in Singapore. Our municipality constantly lobbied the Government to provide a new bus line to serve us. We finally got it after 2 years, but every time I boarded that bus I counted no more than 5 people on it. Great for me, but it just wasn’t a great use of public funds to deploy a $100,000 bus way below capacity. Not to mention the additional congestion we created.

Here’s one idea for Governments: instead of buying a new bus to provide a bus line in inaccessible areas, use the money to subsidize rides by private providers such that it matches the cost of public transport. Furthermore, if a family like Zara’s is eligible for subsidies on public transportation, these should be applicable when they take rides by private providers.

This will require close collaboration between the Government and private providers (yes, operational issues will not be easy!), but is the most cost-effective way of closing the accessibility and affordability gap.

Some cities in the U.S. are working on this concept. For example, The Southeastern Philadelphia Transportation Authority (SEPTA) had insufficient parking lots at their train stations to accommodate commuters who drove to the station and dropped off their cars for the day. It did not make sense to make a huge investment in building new parking lots. Last year, they partnered with uber to provide a 40% discount on Uber rides to and from rail stations, encouraging people to share rides instead of drive.

  1. Deploying autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles hold tremendous promise for our objectives of inclusive transport because they will likely reduce the cost of rides. First, a bulk of a ride’s cost today is the salary of the driver. Second, companies are moving towards deploying autonomous vehicles in fleets. When vehicles are constantly utilized, companies can afford to charge less per ride. Finally, with technological advances, we can expect the hardware of autonomous vehicles, such as Lidars, to decrease in cost.

When this occurs, it will make more economic sense for companies to deploy vehicles to inaccessible areas, even if there is no promise of a return trip. Reduced prices also means that transport will be more affordable to families like Zara.

A city that plans ahead will ensure that autonomous vehicles are deployed in a way that benefits the broader population. For example, road space should not be dominated by privately-owned autonomous vehicles; Autonomous vehicle fleets should be embraced. Helping city-dwellers accept autonomous vehicles as part of their daily transportation experience is also an important part of the equation.

 

Conclusion

In my first post, I talked about how a seamless and enjoyable commute, sans car ownership, can go a long way towards mitigating the experience of inequality in a city. In my second post, I explored the ways Governments must work with private transport providers to ensure a truly seamless commute in the sharing economy – one that mimics the comfort of car ownership.

This third post covered three ways to ensure that our transportation system caters to some of the most vulnerable members of our society: community participation, public-private partnerships, and embracing autonomous vehicles. Inclusivity is an objective that is particularly close to my heart.

My final post in this series will be about the darker side of the shared economy, and how cities and business must work together to manage disruptions to our transportation system, including the rise of ride-sharing technology companies, as well as the advent of autonomy.

The sharing economy tackles one of the biggest issues every modern city faces – inequality.

Last week I spoke on a CES panel “Powering the Shared Economy to Improve the Lives of City Dwellers”. My co-panellists were Zipcar, Lyft and Grab, so our discussion naturally focused on the sharing economy in transport. Our full session was recorded here.

As the only Government representative on the panel, the inevitable question to me was – how does the sharing economy impact a city? How does it fit into our plans? How does it change the way we operate? I’ll touch on the first question for now.

I believe the impact of the sharing economy goes beyond improving transport.

It has the potential to address one of the biggest issues every modern city faces – inequality.

Companies working on ride-sharing, car-sharing and autonomous vehicle fleets have the potential to make a much more fundamental impact on society than some might think.  

1. One of a city dweller’s most acute experiences of inequality is the daily commute.

Very few of us have the rising Gini coefficient at the top of our minds, but we feel its impact when we go about our daily lives. For example, in Singapore, the daily commute is a constant reminder of luxuries we may never afford. Just five years ago, there were three ways to get around the city:

  • I buy a car. It costs $100-$150k to buy a car[1], but I get the ultimate customisation in my commute. I can leave my house whenever I want, I don’t have to wait, I sit in air-conditioned comfort. I get to my destination in half the time of the equivalent journey on public transport.
  • I take public transport, which is cheap but the experience is quite the opposite of customisation. If I’m lucky, I get to the bus stop just as my bus is pulling in. If not, I wait 10 minutes, which has a knock-on effect on catching my next bus or train. I squeeze with strangers and hardly have room to move. I walk from my bus stop to work and am drenched in sweat from the 98% humidity.
  • I take a taxi, but only if I’m desperate and/or feeling rich, and it’s not always easy to catch one. At some point, taxis were waiting outside the Central Business District during peak hours so they could make an extra buck from being called, rather than hailed.

Five years ago, the trade-off between cost and comfort in the transport experience was extremely stark. A city dweller experiences inequality when he knows he will never be able to afford the comfort of a $100-$150k car, and feels like he doesn’t have a good alternative.

2.  By providing good travel experiences without the cost of car ownership, the sharing economy reduces the experience of inequality in the daily commute. 

The sharing economy has always played a central role in moving people around the city – in the form of public transport. Too bad public transport in most places gives the sharing economy a bad name.

Fortunately, technology and business innovations have given the sharing economy a much needed boost. For example, technology has enabled people to find a ride in real-time, with the click of an iPhone button. Business innovations such as Uberpool have brought down the cost of rides – in many places, below the traditional taxi fare.[1]

As a commuter, I now have a wide range of options sandwiched between owning a car and taking public transport. On the spectrum closest to car ownership, I can get an Uber or short-term rental car (e.g. Zipcar) on demand. For a slight decrease in cost, I can share my ride with others in a LyftLine/Uberpool. If I want to trade off some flexibility for an even cheaper fare, I can submit a bid on crowd-sourced bus services like Beeline or SWAT. Even public transport has improved significantly with LTA providing real-time information on bus arrival times and crowdedness.

Importantly, this expansion of good options means that commuters don’t need to make such a stark choice between cost and comfort when deciding whether or not to buy a car. This reduces the experience of inequality in the daily commute.

3. The best has yet to come – with the promise of autonomous vehicles, participating in the sharing economy will not just be a concession, but a superior option to car ownership.

Some people are already beginning to see shared transport as a superior option to owning a personal car because of the flexibility it brings. I can choose the option which fits my lifestyle – sometimes public transport works just fine, but if I’m in a hurry or on a date, I may pay more for a more comfortable experience. Importantly, I never have to worry about where to park.

In contrast, car owners can feel compelled to use their cars even if there are better options. Behavioural economists refer to car owners in Singapore as having a “sunk cost mentality”. Put simply, once you pay a bomb to own the car, nothing – not road taxes, expensive parking, the prospect of circling the block for an hour to find an empty lot, or for some, being caught drunk-driving – will stop you from using your car, because in your mind you’ve already sunk such a huge investment and you should use it as much as you can. It can be a psychological trap.

I believe that when autonomous vehicles are ready to be deployed in fleets (imagine Uber without drivers), shared transport will become even more attractive compared to car ownership. Commuting in the shared economy can become an experience, not just a necessary evil. When cars do not need to be driven by humans, new design possibilities open up. A steering wheel and front-facing seats are no longer necessary, and a car can be configured like a meeting room, for example. A car ride can be a place to meditate, focus on work or even have wine with your friends on the way to a party.

When many different designs of vehicles are deployed in a fleet, you will be able to summon precisely the vehicle (and accompanying service) you want. In the morning you could use a minivan to ferry your family to school and work, in the evening you could summon a sleek, designer vehicle to bring you to your company’s dinner function. On the weekend, a jeep could take your family around the island for some R&R.

Today, owning a private car is the standard for luxury transportation. People make a large financial outlay upfront in exchange for on-demand, customised transportation. With fleets of autonomous vehicles deployed round-the-clock, providing the ultimate customisation in travel experience, more efficiently and without the pains of parking, this paradigm will be overturned. Shared transport will be the more affordable and customised and comfortable experience. Fewer and fewer people will aspire to own a car.

4. A transportation system dominated by the sharing economy frees up precious city space for community, housing, and commercial activities

So far, I’ve talked about how technological developments may make many of us prefer shared transport over car ownership, and how that could help mitigate our experience of inequality in the city.

If more people choose shared transport instead of car ownership, this will also enable us to use our land more equitably and progressively: think about how roads and parking spaces are disproportionately used by those who have the resources to own cars. If we can reduce the number of cars on the road, this land can be used for purposes that benefit a more diverse population such as homes, community facilities and commerce.

In cities like Singapore, where land is a constrained resource, it is even more important to make sure we use it to benefit everyone, not just those who can afford it.

5. The vision of a more equal transportation experience and society can only be realised if Governments and businesses work together. Stay tuned for more.

I’m deliberately painting an ideal picture here.

Many things can detract from this vision of a less unequal transportation experience. For example, if the business models for autonomous vehicles target only the rich, or if we fail to make multi-modal transportation seamless for commuters in the shared economy (commuters really dislike the process of transferring from a bus to a train, and vice versa).

Furthermore, I’ve mainly spoke about issues pertaining to the “middle class” Some groups have not been addressed, such as the elderly and disabled. How can we ensure that the system benefits those with limited mobility?

In my next series of posts, I will explore these issues in greater detail, and talk about how partnerships between Governments and businesses can ensure that the forces of talent and technology powering the shared economy will be used towards maximum societal and business benefit. Stay tuned!

[1] Though the extent to which fare decreases are structural versus artificially depressed by Venture Capital investment is yet to be seen, a topic I discuss at https://techandpublicgood.com/2017/02/07/the-dark-side-of-the-shared-economy-in-transport-and-three-solutions/

[1] For an explanation on why cars in Singapore are so expensive, see this link. At a macro level, it’s about restricting the supply of cars to manage traffic and road space. http://dollarsandsense.sg/no-nonsense-explanation-on-why-cars-in-singapore-are-so-expensive/

[2] If the “sharing economy” is defined as a having access to an asset that you do not own. I find this to be the most compelling definition.