Autonomous Cars: A Smart Cities Answer to COVID-Proof Transit?

Of all the circumstances that we might have imagined kickstarting America’s smart city aspirations, a pandemic surely wasn’t on our list. And yet, our anxieties over disease transmission might just be the fuel that propels us towards a future in which autonomous cars become the urban norm.

A huge setback for public transit

For the last several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled us to change our perspectives to suit a newly disease-aware world. We’ve adapted our day-to-day routine to suit social distancing recommendations and become leery of crowded, high-traffic areas. Our faith in public transit, in particular, has been shaken so profoundly that it very nearly demands an innovative fix. Time magazine recently described COVID-19’s impact on public transit as “apocalyptic.”

“[Buses] that once carried anywhere from about 50 to 100 passengers have been limited to between 12 and 18 to prevent overcrowding in response to coronavirus […] Seattle transit riders have described budgeting as much as an extra hour per trip to account for the reduced capacity, eating into their time at work, school or with family,” Time’s Alejandro de la Garza wrote in July.

Sometimes, riders’ anxieties compel them to leave the bus before their stop; one woman who de la Garza interviewed described exiting several stops early with her seven-year-old son after the driver allowed a crowd of people to board at once.

“It’s very trying,” the source, Brittany Williams, shared. “I’ll put it in those terms.”

How can we keep public transit viable?

The obvious answer to the overcrowding and slow-transit problems would be to add more buses — but such a move doesn’t seem economically feasible with the current decline in public transit use. In July, the Transit App reported a 58 percent year-over-year reduction in travelers within Williams’ home city of Seattle.

Numbers are a little worse in Washington D.C., with a 66 percent decline in Metrobus use and a 90 percent drop in Metrorail traffic. The losses experienced in New York City are among the worst, with the Transit App noting a 95 percent loss in the spring and a still-alarming reduction rate of 84 percent in late summer.

Pandemic fears have limited traveling, which in turn has limited fares to a trickle and all but eliminated cities’ abilities to add to their public transit fleets. According to a recent McKinsey report, 52 percent of American respondents travel less than they did before COVID-19. Many who do travel opt for a private vehicle over bus or train trips. A full third of surveyed consumers say that they “value constant access to a private vehicle more than before COVID-19.”

To risk stating the obvious: not everyone can buy or store a public car, nor should they even if they could. The environmental impact of replacing public transit with individual vehicles would be environmentally disastrous and dramatically exacerbate existing traffic and parking problems. Moreover, reports indicate that purchasing intent has dropped with the economic downturn; people don’t want to buy new cars when their incomes are uncertain.

An opening for autonomous cars

But I would argue that city-dwellers don’t necessarily need private cars — they just need a mode of transport that offers the isolated, sterilized feel of personal vehicles with the cost-efficiency and dependability that characterizes good public transit. Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have set the groundwork for this, but aren’t a perfect fit. They’re expensive, focused on one person at a time, and naturally pose a virus-spread risk to passengers and drivers alike. But what if there were no drivers, only a limited number of masked and isolated passengers traveling pre-defined, regular routes?

Years ago, architect Peter Calthorpe painted a vision of California cities with autonomous cars that was very nearly this, writing: “Down the center of El Camino, on dedicated, tree-lined lanes, [would be] autonomous shuttle vans. They’d arrive every few minutes, pass each other at will, and rarely stop, because an app would group passengers by destination.”

There’s a window of opportunity to reshape consumer perception of autonomous cars within a public-transit perception. Instead of anxiously fleeing buses inundated with close-seated crowds, mothers like Brittany Williams could order an autonomous ride and sit, as per a COVID-optimized version of Calthorpe’s vision, either alone or with one or two distanced others. Between routes, these cars could be sanitized and sent off to support new passengers. Such an approach would establish self-driving vehicles not as a one-person luxury, but a new and COVID-thoughtful form of public transportation.

The sustainability and convenience benefits of adding a self-driving shuttle service to public transit are countless. These include lessening the need for private cars, mitigating traffic deadlock, and improving passenger convenience. Autonomous shuttles could shoulder at least some of the burden carried by other public transit services and lessen the need for additional (if half-filled) buses and trains.

While it is true that Uber and Lyft have been talking about developing autonomous cars and next-gen taxi services for years to no avail, we are now closer than ever before to achieving viable autonomous driving technology. Earlier this year, the GM-backed driverless car startup Cruise received a permit from the California DMV that would allow the company to test driverless cars without safety drivers, albeit only on specific roads.

This represents a significant step forward in the deployment of autonomous cars and, if successful, could lead to the first fully-autonomous vehicles. It is worth noting that despite delays, Cruise hopes to launch a self-driving taxi service soon; its fourth-generation autonomous cars features automatic doors, rear-seat airbags, and, notably, no steering wheel.

If Cruise can manage to accomplish this, it stands to reason that autonomous shuttles are not all that far away. If anything, cities might have more opportunities to partner with self-driving startups and incorporate autonomous shuttles into municipal transit. Given that pandemic-prompted anxieties will likely persist until (if not well beyond) the emergence of a mass-produced vaccine, it seems likely that the window of opportunity for piquing consumer interest in socially-distanced autonomous transit could extend out over years.

Of course, there are few clear speed bumps in the way.

For one, there is still a pervasive stigma around the perceived safety of autonomous cars. Uber memorably halted its experiments in 2018, when one of its experimental vehicles struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona.

At the time, there were rumors that the company planned to divest itself of its self-driving interests entirely; however, the company has begun to restart its efforts on a significantly smaller scale in recent months. Cruise — and any other autonomous car startup that takes on the challenge — will need to assure the public of its products’ safety before it can achieve widespread acceptance.

Another major issue will be cost.

With public transit in such dire straits, obtaining the funds for a partnership between self-driving car startups and municipal transit may prove difficult in the short term unless the local government is convinced of the public’s need for autonomous shuttles and the revenue that such an approach could attract as a result of said need. Proponents will need to launch a media campaign to raise public awareness and bolster backing for adding autonomous shuttles to municipal transit.

If we can get beyond some of these initial hurdles, we can kickstart a smart, sustainable and COVID-aware urban transit system. As with the early days of online shopping, consumer perceptions of autonomous driving will quickly shift from it being a laughable luxury to a must-have public service, especially under pandemic conditions.

Originally published on TriplePundit.com

By |2020-11-13T21:30:40+00:00November 13th, 2020|Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

Quarantine Can be a Pressure Cooker for Inspiration

Life in quarantine feels like an odd suspension of real life; a time in which the world grinds to an indefinite, boring, and under-achieving halt.

When you live in New York, it only ever takes a glance out the window to remind yourself that the country is in a state of emergency. The streets are oddly silent; the few who brave the open air wear makeshift masks and veer in fearful six-foot detours around other pedestrians. Flip on the news, and you get a cacophony of news stories that riff on the same two questions — What’s happening with COVID-19? When will it end? — in a continuous loop. Sheltering at home somehow generates as much exhaustion as it does restless cabin fever. Life in quarantine feels like an odd suspension of real life, a time in which the world grinds to an indefinite, boring, and under-achieving halt.

This period of pause is the pits for everyone — but especially so for aspiring entrepreneurs. Currently, over 42 states have implemented shelter-in-place mandates and isolated over 316 million people in their homes. Businesses of all stripes have shuttered their doors or attempted to shift their day-to-day work into a new, remote, normal. It’s a unique and stressful time to be in business; according to a recent study by PWC, nearly three-quarters of surveyed American CFOs are “greatly concerned” about COVID-19’s impact on their operations. While there theoretically could be a worse time to start a business, the current pandemic would be challenging to surpass.

But here’s the thing. Amidst all of this business stress and well-deserved economic concern, there is room for hope. While there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has burdened us with challenges, it has also compelled tech-forward entrepreneurs across countless industries to pivot into a frantic period of innovation.

To borrow a quote from Entrepreneur writer Hamza Mudassir, “Black swan events, such as economic recessions and pandemics, change the trajectory of governments, economies, and businesses — altering the course of history.” The coronavirus will likely be the same — perhaps, even, for the better.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen an explosion of digital teleworking solutions, teaching tools, therapy and stress-relief apps, and retail solutions that, I believe, will benefit us even when the pandemic finally recedes. These offerings are only available because forward-thinking entrepreneurs took the initiative to see beyond the immediate crisis and give consumers what they need. They continued problem-solving even in a world in lockdown.

I’m not necessarily saying that now is the time to build your business — quite the opposite. But there are steps that aspiring entrepreneurs can take to keep their entrepreneurial dreams alive and prepare for when consumers and business leaders alike can finally step into the open air.

“This will be a before moment and an after moment for the world,” Open AI CEO Sam Altman recently told CNBC. “There’s incredible innovation coming.”

Here’s what you can do to get ready for that ‘after’ moment.

Reflect on Your Business Idea

If there’s one fact that we know for sure, it’s that society will feel the repercussions of COVID-19 long after the virus itself fades.

“We’re going to have to work through this quarantine state of mind even when the physical quarantine has lifted,” Sheva Rajaee, founder of the Center for Anxiety and OCD in Irvine, California, recently told reporters for Vox.

Despite our assertions that we’ll make up for lost time and treasure in-person interactions once shelter-in-place restrictions lift, it seems likely that our current fears of infection and interpersonal contact will persist even as we transition back into ordinary life. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to look at their business ideas and consider whether they could be retooled to better suit the needs of a consumer base that increasingly treasures at-home services. Alternatively, entrepreneurs may want to consider how their business could be pivoted to lessen their reliance on in-person contact and maximize their use of digital channels.

Build Your Connections

Entrepreneurship is an inherently lonely profession. While a friend, a colleague, or a partner may sympathize with your anxiety or celebrate your wins, they can never fully understand the nerve-wracking thrill that comes part and parcel with building a business. During hard times like these, that kind of loneliness can feel crippling; it lowers morale, reduces productivity, and dampens creativity.

But, if you can build a network of people who truly understand the struggle from firsthand experience, you’ll be better equipped to face the entrepreneurial challenge head-on. As entrepreneur and writer David Sax put the matter in a recent article for Fast Company, “We need to build a community of entrepreneurs who can lean on each other, learn from each other, and let one another know that while they may feel as though they are facing the world alone, their experience is shared, and in some way, the burden is too.”

Reach out to entrepreneur-based social media groups; get involved with your local small business organizations; forge real connections with the acquaintances you’ve meant to contact but never have. Take the time to build a supportive network, and you’ll see the supportive and creative returns tenfold.

Balance Your Perspective

The pandemic is happening. Yes, it may seem like stating the obvious — but it needs to be said. Society will be struggling through this challenge for a while, and the repercussions will persist for months, if not years.

As Forbes contributor Hod Fleishman recently wrote, “We need to accept that reality is changing, identify what works, and […] define new ways of working. COVID-19 is terrible, it’s a tragedy, but it also opens up new business opportunities.”

We need to find a way to move on and thrive despite the hardship and uncertainty we face right now. Strive for creativity and productivity — and when you feel overwhelmed, give yourself the time you need to process the stress.

I wholeheartedly believe that with persistence, optimism, and effort, entrepreneurs can get through the COVID-19 crisis and do their part to make our world a better, more creative place.

Originally published on ThriveGlobal

By |2020-09-11T21:21:34+00:00September 11th, 2020|Business, Culture|