We know that the broader promise of autonomous vehicles (AVs) lies in their capacity to transform mass transit, with authorities like New Jersey's Department of Transportation currently looking to build massive urban services with demand-responsive, self-driving vehicles. And yet, in order to reach its full potential, the AV industry has to tackle how we can scale this driverless future in a world where mobility needs vary greatly across communities. For example, can we reasonably expect NJDOT’s solution to be copy and pasted into a small town in rural Idaho or the suburbs of Detroit and still see success?
As with any public service, context matters. Just think about the abundance of service design elements to determine when it comes to crafting a suitable on-demand transit service with conventional vehicles. Cities and transit agencies set countless service and performance targets — populations served, accessibility levels, ride wait times, and trip duration, for example — when working on microtransit deployments. Not only can these goals themselves vary by partner, but, as a result of varying local contexts, how partners achieve these goals can differ as well.
These same kinds of use case-specific factors need to be taken into account when building on-demand transit services that happen to include AVs. But there are also several unique aspects of service design that agencies need to consider when designing a deployment with autonomous vehicles. These include:
- Road type and speed
- Level of integration with existing transit
- Topography and weather
At Via, we manage the full suite of components that come with launching public autonomous transit services — from initial service design to ongoing operations. While there are still limitations to AV technology today, we work with our partners to assess their transit needs and goals in conjunction with their local environments, just as we would in a conventional microtransit service, in order to best match available autonomous technologies to their desired use case. Like any transit service, AV deployments should prioritize meeting transit needs over showcasing any particular technology.
Below, we’ve highlighted six Via-powered AV services designed to meet particular transit needs, and shown how we assessed these service’s tech requirements with regard to road type and speed, integration, and topography and weather to determine the appropriate AV technology. In the remainder of this piece, we discuss these factors in greater detail to show how AV tech can be deployed to the benefit of diverse communities across the world.
Road type and speed
Via’s first autonomous pilot, BusBot, launched in the summer of 2019 through a partnership with local bus operator Busways, Transport for NSW, and AV technology provider EasyMile. The vehicles traveled at low speeds, fitting the location of the pilot: a local retirement community in New South Wales, Australia, which was in need of transportation for its senior residents. BusBot provided free, on-demand, shared rides for seniors throughout the neighborhood. The partners involved in the service were able to test various aspects of the autonomous vehicle technology and the integration with Via’s software in a relatively controlled environment.
On the other end of the spectrum sits RAPID — a partnership between the City of Arlington, May Mobility, Via, and the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). What originated as a small pilot with just one shuttle driving at low speeds on off-street trails is now five autonomous vehicles traversing a zone that includes the Downtown Library, City Hall, and UTA and numerous restaurants, offices, and businesses. These AVs travel on public streets and are available to all members of the public. May Mobility’s AV technology enables RAPID to provide a useful and safe service, traveling on roads with speed limits of up to 35 mph.
In November 2019, Huyndai, Pony.ai, and Via launched an on-demand, shared transit service with 10 robotaxis in the city of Irvine and on the University of California Irvine (UCI) campus to provide rides to local residents, as well as UCI students and faculty. Via built a white-labeled BotRide smartphone application, which enabled passengers to book autonomous rides by selecting their pickup and dropoff locations. BotRide was shared, on-demand, and navigated public roads in an urban environment. Instead of connecting with existing public transit, the 6-month pilot focused on testing shared, on-demand autonomous microtransit on urban public roads at scale. In doing so, BotRide was able to provide over 8,000 autonomous rides across a 20 square mile service zone, six days per week, ten hours per day.
By contrast, RAPID operates within the same booking and dispatch ecosystem as the already-thriving Via Arlington microtransit service, so riders use the same smartphone app for all their transportation needs. In Europe, KelRide — soon launching in Kelheim, Germany through a partnership with Easymile — will also directly integrate with the rest of the Bavarian district’s public transportation. In addition to enabling riders to book trips in both AVs and conventional vehicles, Via’s rider app (already operational for on-demand, conventional trips) will also facilitate intermodal trip booking, so riders can view and book connecting transportation, including the local fixed route bus and train.
Topography and weather
BusBot operated in sunny New South Wales and on relatively flat roads within its residential community service zone. Similarly, BotRide was situated in Southern California, and RAPID in Texas, where inclement weather, such as snow or rain, is rarely a cause for concern. The non-weatherized vehicles used for these services made perfect sense for their local environments.
In comparison, KelRide will operate throughout the region’s hilly terrain and seasonal foggy and icy weather conditions. The service will develop and deploy weatherized vehicles that are specifically equipped to navigate these conditions. Services like this prove out the capacity of AV deployments to offer trips for any kind of rider in any geography — a necessary functionality for widely applicable public transit.
What all of these deployments and partners share is a commitment to building better transportation options for their communities. AVs aren’t just for joyriding — more than 60% of Arlington RAPID’s riders use the service to travel to essential destinations like schools, work, and medical appointments.
And yet using AVs as transit doesn’t only serve the public good, but also opens the door to new kinds of local and federal funding opportunities: for example, RAPID was originally funded through a $1.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s Integrated Mobility Innovation Program, and most recently by a grant from the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Cities are able to secure this funding by designing AV services that advance transit through innovation and solve imminent transit needs. Thus, the careful section of AV service characteristics that best suit the local environment and transit needs not only contributes to a more equitable and environmentally sustainable path forward for this technology, but also helps to ensure its financial feasibility. Public sector and private sector partners can use this framework to think bigger about what’s possible with their autonomous vehicle pilot — and then start strategically planning how to get there. AVs have the opportunity to provide useful, convenient, and accessible transit services. In order to do this, these services must be properly designed, taking into account the capabilities of AV technology, the service’s goals, and the local environment.