In our book chapter, Transit Leap: A Deployment path for shared-use autonomous vehicles that supports sustainability (Springer, 2017), we described a way for regional and municipal governments to start deploying local area, autonomous transit. We described seeking out small areas in which demand would be constrained to short trips that could be safely provided in driverless, slow-moving vehicles such as imminent robo-taxis and robo-shuttles. (We were talking about 2018, not 2035.) Gradually, these fledgling areas would be merged into larger services areas as the technology improved and cities (then regions) worked out ways to manage the road network for safe, contiguous trips and eventual wide-area coverage. By mid-century, or shortly thereafter, we could achieve regional and national trip coverage matching that currently available to the private vehicle.

Darker colors mean greater demand for short trips likely.

Earlier this month, INRIX published a study showing a straightforward big-data method to identify such areas from “hundreds of millions of data points collected about population movement, congestion and parking in downtown cores and urban areas across the U.S.” This study ranked the top 50 U.S. cities (by population) into a list ordered by suitability for early deployment. The top five were New Orleans, Albuquerque, Tucson, Portland, and Omaha. Heat maps for each of Austin, New York, and San Francisco (placing 12th, 32nd, and 48th, respectively) were included to show likely service areas for consideration by planners.

Even more interesting is that the model parameters include features for trips, parking, and demographics and were “structured in such a way that city planners can adjust the weight of each factor to account for individual priorities” (“individual” meaning the individual city).

We are closing in on automated vehicle technology that can be used in constrained areas and at slow urban speeds. Big data tools like this from INRIX can help identify sensible areas to begin the first commercial robo-transit deployments. Several companies are preparing to offer such services. The demand for first/last mile applications is unquestioned.

The ducks are lined up. The era of robo-transit will start shortly. We will soon need governance and oversight of public automated fleets. Let’s not wait until private firms begin to deploy then quarrel with them after the fact as we did with Uber.

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