What Do 100 Urban Autonomous Vehicle Pilots Tell Us About the Driverless Future?

How are 100 cities paving the way for a driverless future? Find out how at http://avsincities.bloomberg.org

Despite the setbacks of the last few weeks, there’s actually a lot of good news out there in the world of autonomous vehicle testing.

Over the last six months, we’ve had the opportunity at Bits and Atoms to spend a great deal of our time scanning far and wide to track a growing club of cities that are actively preparing for or engaged in piloting autonomous vehicles. These efforts are documented in the Global Atlas of Cities and Autonomous Vehicles, which is an effort supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute.

Today, with the inclusion of the German capital of Berlin, that list now numbers 100 municipalities worldwide.

This atlas is the most compelling evidence to date that cities are the most important test beds for autonomous driving technology. From London to Phoenix, Pittsburgh to Beijing, both established automakers and tech upstarts are finding that the largest markets, indispensable talent, and most promising innovation opportunities reside in urban areas.

What Have We Learned?

This compendium of autonomous vehicles in the city launched in October 2017. It provides a comprehensive, one-stop guide to city governments’ efforts to create policies and plans for autonomous vehicles, and facilitate tests and trials. From an initial catalog of 52 cities, the collection has grown to 100 cities.

City governments are playing a major role in AV testing and experimentation worldwide. The majority of the cities on the map — 67 of the 100 cities have autonomous vehicle pilots underway or at advanced stages of planning.

The mobility problems cities have focused on come as no surprise. AVs are being used to test solutions where other modes of transportation face challenges, including low-volume last-mile connections, circulators for campuses and other closed loops, and mixed pedestrian environments. Many cities are also trying to anticipate the conversion of existing private automobiles to self-driving operation in the coming decade.

These pilots also highlight the complexity of even the most modest autonomous vehicle deployments in urban settings. They involve an array of partners including global corporations and tech startups, transit agencies and private operators, state and national government agencies, and universities.

Emerging Innovations

Despite a similar set of priorities, and a technology toolkit that differs little across the globe, cities are finding innovative approaches to the AV opportunity. Here are five of the most exciting ideas from the atlas to date.

  1. Publish your pilot protocols. While many cities want to encourage AV makers and mobility service providers to conduct tests on city streets, few have created as deliberate and transparent a process for running them as Boston, whose Transportation Department and Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a special innovation unit created in 2010, are using a multi-stage permitting approach. [https://www.boston.gov/departments/new-urban-mechanics/autonomous-vehicles-bostons-approach]
  2. Let public advocates engage the public. Many city-led AV pilots suffer from a common curse of government projects — poor public engagement. But in South Perth, Australia, when the Royal Automobile Club (a national motorists’ organization) embraced the idea of AV transit, the result was one of the most successful public demonstrations to date. [https://rac.com.au/about-rac/advocating-change/initiatives/intellibus]
  3. Focus on special needs users. Senior citizens face a number of mobility challenges as they age, but also face special obstacles to exploiting high-tech solutions like AVs. That’s why Flourish, a consortium bringing together several local universities, Bristol City Council, and insurance company AXA will use a mix of simulators and vehicles to understand how older people may behave in AVs. [http://www.flourishmobility.com/]
  4. Go big or go home. Dubai has made the world’s most ambitious pledge for autonomous mobility, to shift 25 percent of passenger journeys to AVs by 2030. To make that happen, it launched a $5 million innovation contest, the World Challenge for Self-driving Transport, to culminate in a pilot at next year’s World Congress for Self-driving Transport. [http://sdchallenge.com/en/]
  5. Open your mind to new ideas. Washington, DC was the first major city in the United States to authorize tests of small delivery AVs on city sidewalks and crosswalks. With the formation a of an AV Working Group and the release of an RFI seeking industry input on AV-based solutions for 10th Street corridor linking the National Mall and Southwest Waterfront, the city has opened its ears to new ideas from inside and outside government. [https://mayor.dc.gov/release/mayor-bowser-establishes-autonomous-vehicle-working-group]

This is an impressive body of work, but its still very early in the game — and there are many other insights to be gleaned, so by all means go explore yourself. And the big picture of the future for autonomous vehicles in cities is still hazy.

But these 100 cases show that city governments have established themselves as a powerful force leading the way in shaping a responsible, innovative, and policy-driven agenda for testing this emerging technology.