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The future of autonomous vehicles is in mass transit

  •   4 min read

Why the future of autonomous vehicles is through shared, public transit — not single-occupancy, private vehicles.

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Chances are you’ve been hearing a lot about autonomous vehicles (AVs) lately. No longer part of some far-off future, actual driverless shuttles and robotaxis are hitting the streets as vehicle manufacturers, technology providers, and other stakeholders are rapidly innovating in this exciting new space.

The potential advantages of AVs are clear. Automated driving technology — using cameras, sensors, radar, and intelligent software — can reduce accidents caused by human error, making communities safer for riders, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. Additionally, autonomous mobility frees up driving time so individuals can devote their attention to work, entertainment, or socializing. Last but not least, AVs have the potential to ease congestion and make cars accessible to many groups of people who otherwise couldn’t drive. 

The broader promise of AVs lies in their capacity to transform mass transit.

The real question is how AVs will bring the most value to communities. Right now, many players in the AV space seem to be proposing that the best way forward is individual adoption. In other words, AVs would incrementally replace conventional single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs), both in the garages of private owners and the fleets of ride hailing services.

This vision seems far too limited in scope and creativity for such an innovative technology. Instead, the broader promise of AVs lies in their capacity to transform mass transit.

​​Thinking beyond SOVs.

The benefits of AVs are many, but simply replacing each single-occupancy taxi or ride-hail vehicle on the road with an AV wouldn’t do much to address urban sustainability goals, like decreasing road traffic, congestion, and reducing land used for parking, or rural access concerns, particularly around transportation costs. Not to mention that, in a single-use model, this cutting-edge, costly technology would be limited to users who can afford private rides. On the other hand, AVs in mass transit can serve a public good, and data drawn from a large rider base can help simultaneously mature AV tech and improve the overall health of public transit networks. 

When part of shared mass transit systems, autonomous vehicles are more accessible and sustainable. Plus, when AVs are managed and routed efficiently, this application can provide a useful transit service, while enabling operators to maximize their autonomous investment.  

Think of a fleet of shared, on-demand AV shuttles continuously moving people to and from traditional fixed route mass transit systems, like the bus or train, that would otherwise be too inconvenient or impractical for them to use. Or, envision publicly-funded robotaxis circulating through a major metropolitan area, never taking up a parking space but making it significantly easier for non-drivers, part-time drivers, or anyone who doesn’t own a vehicle to visit the doctor, go to the grocery store, or attend a family gathering. In this way, autonomous technology can benefit the general public. 

Making AVs more efficient.

Regardless of how environmentally friendly a vehicle is, fewer vehicles on the road will always be a more sustainable option. Implementing AV as public transportation not only reduces congestion, pollution, and emissions more than private use ever could, it also helps to fill glaring gaps in current transportation coverage and democratizes access to this cutting-edge innovation. When deployed with skilled operational expertise and smart routing, booking, and dispatch software, AVs can be deployed as part of a mixed AV/non-AV fleet to form a more robust and flexible network. In this way, autonomous transit options will only be available where they serve a distinct purpose — not pushed into areas that they wouldn’t adequately serve — with riders and operators able to move seamlessly between autonomous and non-autonomous modes.

In the near-term, this integrated deployment approach makes AV deployments more financially viable: as safety operators are currently required on AVs to intervene when the vehicle encounters unpredictable situations, mixed fleets allow agencies to test AVs only in parts of the service zone where they are expected to achieve the highest cost efficiency. Adding AVs in a dynamically routed, on-demand, and shared format will optimize utilization by both filling as many seats as possible in AV shuttles for as many trips as possible and by bringing more people into the mass transit rider community. In the long term, when AVs achieve full driverless capacity, agencies will be empowered to expand service in targeted ways at a lower cost by adding vehicles and retaining the same number of drivers.

Finally, working with a leading TransitTech provider can furnish an AV service with customer-facing tools to dramatically enhance the rider experience. Many transit riders may never have set foot in a self-driving vehicle before, so it’s crucial that transit teams consider additional features to make the adjustment as smooth as possible. At Via, we use in-vehicle screens to display supplemental in-ride information, trip updates, and QR codes for riders to confirm boarding. We also build white-labeled apps to facilitate booking, visibility into multimodal options, and live customer support. 

Bringing AVs to mass transit.

By leveraging Via-powered on-demand shared mobility software and driverless technology, cities and transit agencies are bringing the vision of AVs in mass transit to life. 

In March 2021, the City of Arlington, Texas, launched RAPID — the first example of on-demand AVs integrated into an existing public transportation service in the United States. Through a partnership between Via, May Mobility, and the University of Texas at Arlington, the city introduced five AVs, including one wheelchair accessible vehicle, to complement its public microtransit fleet. Now, residents are able to book AVs and non-AVs from a single smartphone app, with both the general microtransit and self-driving services also operated on the backend using one software system. RAPID has already delivered over 15,000 rides this year.

A similar use case can also be seen in Grand Rapids, MI, that is applying on-demand AV technology to replace their previous AV program, which only ran as a fixed route. The new dynamic service, responsive to riders real-time demand, includes more than 20 designated pickup and dropoff locations in the downtown area. Via’s vehicle-agnostic software powers booking, routing, vehicle dispatching, customer experience, and fleet management. 

Future-proofing transportation.

Any transportation provider, from experienced agencies to cities that have never offered transit before, can partner with Via to understand how AVs can bring the most value to your community.

As the leader in TransitTech, Via offers valuable technology, insight, and expertise in the AV ecosystem. We can match your needs to the right partners and help your team secure funding. We can help you pick the best zones for your AV deployment to ensure people get optimal use from the service. Then, we can custom-tailor the service to your local needs with a vehicle-agnostic approach, as well as apply sophisticated technology for routing, ride pooling, and fleet management. Furthermore, we can offer network management for mixed modes, integrating AVs with other vehicle types to offer an exceptional customer experience and strengthen your network. These capabilities can also be unlocked over time through easy service expansion.

Our vision for AVs in public and mass transit unlocks the real advantages of autonomous mobility — accessibility, affordability, and efficiency — for everyone.

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