An Open Network of Autonomous Vehicles Could Solve the “Last Mile” Problem

By Bradley Berman — Lead Editor

More than 50 major cities around the world are piloting self-driving vehicles in an attempt to solve problems related to overbearing traffic congestion. City planners are hopeful that 20th-century transit systems — primarily using low-occupancy vehicles — will be replaced with a dynamic network of shared, connected, autonomous vehicles.

Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Aspen Institute spent most of 2017 studying the potential for autonomous vehicles (AV) in cities. “The most common anticipated role for AVs is bridging existing gaps at the edges of transit systems, a crucial link that planners call the last mile,” the researchers wrote. “Almost every city indicated interest in using AVs for last-mile solutions, and for a majority of cities it was the highest priority.”

The last leg of a trip (whether moving people or things) is usually associated with one-third of the overall cost. For commuters, walking the last mile to a bus stop or train station is often the biggest hassle. That’s why many of us keep a personal vehicle in our driveway — even though the car sits idle for about 90 percent of its life (and we know that walking or riding a bicycle would be good for us and the environment).

Many AV pilot programs use familiar-looking sedans that are equipped with the sensors and processors that allow them to navigate without human intervention. The technology in a self-driving cars borders on the miraculous. But the potential big breakthrough for the last mile is not the vehicle or its gear — but how the technology will allow us to re-envision the shape and function of vehicles.

As soon as we remove the need for a driver’s seat, steering wheel, and other trappings of today’s vehicles, new possibilities emerge. Last summer, the city of Arlington, Texas, near Dallas, put two boxy, battery-powered autonomous shuttles on its streets. The 12-passenger EZ10 driverless shuttles are manufactured by EasyMile, based in Toulouse, France. The shuttles can travel up to 25 miles per hour — on either fixed or on-demand routes.

“We’re not saying this is something we’re going to adopt in the future,” said John Dugan, Arlington’s planning director, in an interview with the Star-Telegram newspaper. “But it could play a role in a larger system.”

A Systems Approach

Driverless shuttles are also being produced by Navya, Auro Robotics, and Local Motors, a low-volume vehicle-maker using open-source designs. The range of AV designs covers the gamut from small last-mile delivery-bots, produced by Starship Technologies, to long-haul self-driving trucks from the likes of Otto and Scania.

These machines can defy expectations of what we think of as a car, truck, or bus. It’s more accurate to think of them as connected mobility devices — hardware for the coming Internet of Transportation. And like the Internet, the real magic comes from software.

The 14-passenger shuttles managed by Ford’s Chariot commuter service are not extraordinary. But its dynamic-routing software that allows passengers to get picked up as close to home as possible reduces the length of the last mile. Toyota’s Gig stationless car-sharing service uses humdrum small hybrids. But the software allows users to find cars wherever they are parked — often right around the corner — and then open the car and monitor its usage until it’s parked for the next user.

All of these vehicles — with or without drivers, on two-wheels, four, or flying — are collecting and sharing data. Autonomous vehicles utilize an arsenal of advanced sensors, 3D cameras, mapping algorithms, and powerful onboard processors to collect and evaluate the data needed to safely and efficiently move to desired destinations. That data, if open and shared, increases in value when it’s fed back into the transportation system.

Will all of these vehicles — and all the data generated from them — be employed to mitigate the problem of the last mile? It’s too early to tell. But the potential exists because the most promising character of the new autonomous, connected era is its distributed nature. Of course, there will be private firms actively participating in the space (and hoarding data in its silos), but no one company or single municipal transportation authority will own the entire Internet of Transportation — just like no single company currently owns the entire network of websites and mobile devices.

Fortunately, a technology exists that could greatly enhance our ability to build an open yet durable federation of mobility providers and users: the blockchain. A transportation blockchain — like the one being built by The DAV Foundation — will allow commuters, robotaxis, delivery bots, drones, and all sorts of currently unimaginable vehicles and transportation services to find one another, communicate, and perform agreed-upon tasks.

Every DAV token-holder — masses of them (all of us) — would create and continually improve the ways that these autonomous vehicles provide transportation services — on highways and busy city streets, extending all the way to the last mile. The advent of AVs and the blockchain doesn’t necessarily mean that a robust Internet of Transportation will materialize overnight or that it will play out exactly as we imagine. But it’s our best shot yet for solving the world’s most intractable transportation problems.