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|

How AI Will Help Build Better Cities

A “smart city,” as we think of it now, is not a singular, centrally controlled entity but a whole collection of intelligently designed machines and functions. Essential aspects of city life like traffic flow, energy distribution, and pedestrian behavior will one day be monitored, understood, and acted upon by smart machines with the goal of improving the way we live. AI has already transformed so many aspects of city life, and one day it may guide an even greater proportion of municipal functions. Here’s a look at just a few of the ways this will happen.

Traffic

Even in a public transportation haven like New York or Chicago, traffic congestion is a major issue. AI can provide a major boost to the work of city engineers, making a drive through the city less of a hassle and reducing the overall time spent on the road. AI can collect and analyze traffic data as it’s happening, and eventually even provide routing solutions for autonomous vehicles.

Not only that, this info can give drivers real-time information on open parking, making the desperate search for a spot downtown a thing of the past. Smart traffic signals that observe and analyze vehicle flow data can keep drivers moving without wasting time at automated red lights. With full integration with self-driving cars, it’s not a stretch to imagine a daily commute happening with little to no input from drivers.

Power

As cities grow, the need for power increases exponentially. One of the most consistent challenges of city management is ensuring that every citizen has their energy needs met, and while green solutions have already made an impact in reducing waste, AI can take the next step in bringing our cities closer to fully self-sufficient energy.

Our power grid is aching for a modern overhaul, and one may just be in store, thanks to smart grid initiatives to bring AI to the application and distribution of energy. The efficiency of a smart machine means that the power of the future will be delivered with less of the waste and redundancy that marks our present grid. The U.S. Department of Energy agrees with the potential of such technology, having made the development of a smart grid an official directive in 2010.

Safety

Artificial intelligence can not only make driving safer, but also improve conditions on the sidewalks and alleyways as well. The city of the future looks to be not only more efficient, but safer as well.

In its best form, AI will allow city officials to better monitor neighborhoods and districts whose problems have historically flown under the radar. Police departments nationwide have already adapted ShotSpotter technology to better crack down on gun crime, with promising results for holistic, community-based solutions to the issues facing urban communities.

While concerns about privacy are valid and important, video surveillance with the proper protocols in place could give police a huge boost in fighting street crime with the help of AI. While such tech is still in its nascent stages, one day in the far-off future police will use intelligent analysis to spot suspicious behavior that may indicate a violent crime about to happen, or follow a suspect through crowds in the city streets. Crack AI researchers are already on the case.

 

If all this talk of AI-infused cities sounds like science fiction, it isn’t. In fact, we in the U.S. have got some catching up to do. Earlier this year, we saw the first rollout of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Smart City platform outside of their native country, as Kuala Lumpur introduced their adoption of the AI data-analysis program. While this smart city mostly makes use of the tech for operational tasks like transportation, such a commitment to this forward-thinking tech indicates a future where big cities will welcome AI assistance with open arms.

Cities are often described as the best implementation of America’s melting pot. A huge variety of people, with disparate origins, interests and dreams, all coming together around one principle: that we work better together than apart. Our cities of the future will likely fulfill that promise better and more efficiently than ever imagined, thanks to improvements in efficiency and safety enabled by AI.

By |2020-02-11T16:52:49+00:00May 16th, 2018|Technology|

Hudson Yards Development & The Future of Smart Cities

When the historic Hudson Yards project joined forces with Constantine Kontokosta and NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) in 2014, the topic of smart cities came to the fore. Hudson Yards is a real estate endeavor unprecedented in the modern era for many reasons: the land developed is west of Midtown West in Manhattan, home to the some of the hottest real estate on the market; the project spans many city blocks, essentially comprising its own neighborhood; and the complex will recycle organic waste, collect and reuse rainwater, and host a power generator onsite. Add the fact that Kontokosta and CUSP are outfitting the site with thousands of sensors, and you have a truly groundbreaking development, what many have termed a “smart city.” Smart cities powered by “user data” have the potential to be safer and certainly smarter, but the methods and application of data gathering deserve attention.

The myriad uses of this sensor system are still being explored, but certain essential energy efficiency and environmental factors will undoubtedly be addressed with the data gathered: air and noise pollution, for example. Hudson Yards’s emphasis on sustainability as well as “resiliency, redundancy, [and] future-proofing” is in part an answer to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and to energy initiatives launched by the mayor’s office. In 2009 Local Law 84 came into effect in New York, mandating that larger properties collect and submit information about buildings’ energy and water usage. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to harness that data in the 80 x 50 effort, aiming to cut New York’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.

For a developer’s perspective, the Observer spoke to David Brause, president of family-owned Brause Realty: “His firm is comfortable investing in green features that might take 20 years to pay off, because his company’s strategy is to buy and hold long-term. He’s honest though that beyond energy cost savings, the economics of green treatments have yet to be entirely proven. […] For existing buildings, even the economic case for updating systems can be tough to make for building owners who aren’t able to work on a 20-year time horizon like large owners can.” However, regulations like Local Law 84 and initiatives like 80 x 50 make it in developers’ best interests to retrofit their buildings with energy management systems and to design green buildings going forward, especially as New York is not the only city to enact such legislation, and more is likely to come down the pipe in coming years.

A open source project called Array of Things has set out to gather urban data similar to that collected at Hudson Yards. By deploying 500 nodes attached to traffic poles and streetlights throughout Chicago, this project will “initially measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature.” Data is transmitted to the Argonne National Laboratory, and measures have been taken to ensure the privacy of passersby.

This issue of privacy, along with security and equality, will need to be addressed in the creation of any smart city. The internet of things – the concept of a network of physical objects collecting data and contributing to a kind of matrix of physical information – is an easy connection to make when visualizing the thousands of sensors placed around Hudson Yards. CUSP brands this idea as a “quantifiable community,” but that raises the question of who can afford to live in the Hudson Yards community, and who may be left behind in the age of smart cities.

An urban neighborhood built from the ground-up, like Hudson Parks – complete with commercial and retail spaces, a school, and a hotel – is almost unheard of, especially in New York City. Most city neighborhoods are deeply rooted in culture and history, even those that undergo controversial growth spurts like gentrification. Even cities that underwent large scale reconstruction, like Chicago after the fire of 1871 or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, still grew organically, shaped by residents and experiences. Can smart cities be considered “cities” in the traditional sense if they are too engineered, and not by their own residents, but by management companies and city planners with a wealth of data at their command?

Kontokosta emphasizes that personal information about residents’ health and activities will only be gathered voluntarily. Such personalized data could be incredibly useful from a city planner’s perspective, but when does it become invasive or even Orwellian? And how is all the information gathered to be secured against cyber attacks? As Kontokosta admits in this Bisnow article, “There will be a lot of challenges dealing with the fire hose of data this is going to unleash, but we’re hoping this will eventually become a model for how cities think about this type of informatics infrastructure going forward.”

For more information, listen to WNYC’s summer 2016 segment: The Future of the Smart City. Find further reading in Anthony Townsend’s book Smart Cities and in Adam Greenfield’s shorter piece Against the Smart City.

By |2018-10-31T17:51:14+00:00October 24th, 2016|Technology, Urban Planning|