From Infrastructure In Disrepair To Autonomous Vehicles Tech Center

Guest Perspective: Shoshana Lew, Chief Operating Officer, Rhode Island Department of Transportation

Providence Rhode Island’s Woonasquatucket River Corridor was once at the forefront of transportation technology innovation — a flourishing manufacturing center with mills and a foundry and which, in the late 19thcentury, became home to one of the first cable tramways in New England, according to local historian Albert Claflin. But, after World War II, as industry left and factories shut down, the Corridor experienced a decline, the population dwindled, and eventually the streetcar left. This spring, innovative transit will return to the area with a pilot deployment of autonomous vehicle technology that is being implemented in a partnership between the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Michigan-based start-up “May Mobility,” drawing from dialogue with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government.

This valley neighborhood is currently re-emerging as Providence’s arts and innovation district, with an infusion of public and private investment focused on improving the quality of place. With that come investments in transportation infrastructure — including the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s (RIDOT) largest capital project to replace a decayed network of bridges that became symbolic of infrastructure in disrepair. That moment of rebuilding carries with it an opportunity to re-envision mobility within an urban context, with the promises of new and rapidly emerging technologies. That opportunity drove RIDOT to situate the state’s first test of autonomous technology in the neighborhood.

The pilot project, which will commence in the spring of 2019, will introduce Rhode Islanders to autonomous vehicles, in this case small, slow-speed electric shuttles that will be staffed at all times by an attendant with manual override capabilities. After a testing period at Rhode Island’s Quonset business park and on the actual route in Providence, service is expected to begin in the Spring of 2019. The service will be free during the initial yearlong pilot. May Mobility, RIDOT’s selected private partner, is based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is currently operating a private business park in Detroit, with agreements in place to operate in Columbus, Ohio and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Under the terms of the public-private partnership, RIDOT will contribute $800,000 for the first year of operation. This includes $300,000 of federal research funds available through the Federal Highway Administration and a $500,000 grant awarded by the R.I. Attorney General’s Office as part of the Volkswagen Environmental Beneficiary Mitigation Plan.

Developing this pilot required a blend of standard operating procedure and disruptive innovation, as RIDOT sought to explore and adapt to the possibilities of new technology within the structure of a competitive procurement process.

Efforts in 2017 to define and scope the pilot centered around the issuance of a “Request for Information” (RFI)– the earliest exploratory step available as part of Rhode Island’s state procurement process. The solicitation was deliberately inclusive to encourage creativity and innovation, framed around thematic questions about issues like the impact of technology on the state’s capital program, safety and law enforcement, environmental impacts of new technology, and the implications of rapid change for workforce and professional training needs within the state.The process included an in-person “expo”, hosted by the New England Institute of Technology (New England Tech), which set the tone for candid dialogue.

The Woonasquatucket corridor emerged from these early discussions as a clear opportunity, with a nexus between potential for improving mobility by offering “first mile/last mile” connectivity to existing transit service, and appetite within the community to support and be part of an experiment. Participants in discussions range from the City of Providence and the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority to nearby anchor institutions like Brown, several growing multi-family housing complexes, and arts institutions like WaterFire Providence. These partnerships will be vital to everything from use of right of way to developing a user-base for the new service.

Though initial discussions defined the neighborhood and concept for the pilot, the subsequent stage of procurement preserved flexibility for creative and varied responses. To that end, the state’s Request For Proposals (RFP) did not define a specific technology solution or a specific route, but rather, outlined desired outcomes — like introducing low- or zero-emission automated vehicles, providing a sustainable and equitable mobility option that fills a gap in the current system, and expanding opportunity both through improving physical access and providing an opportunity to begin exploring how new transportation technology could impact labor and training needs. This approach followed guidance from the Taubman Center on the importance of Performance Based Contracting.

Ultimately, performance measures developed through the contracting process will be crucial to distilling lessons learned about future opportunities to expand mobility options using innovative transportation technology, and the Taubman Center’s support has helped RIDOT develop a framework for that exercise.

On November 13–14 2018, RIDOT and the Kennedy School co-hosted an “Autonomous Vehicle Policy Scrum” — one in a series of such events organized by the Kennedy School to support regional innovation efforts with respect to autonomous vehicle technology. That event once again brought together stakeholders at the New England Institute of Technology, this time with a focused view on how to define and measure success and learn from the pilot. The discussions included RIDOT’s then-prospective vender, with contract negotiation terms specifying the company’s agreement to identify “project outcomes of success.”

The company will provide a range of metrics — vehicle safety reports, mileage driven, share of time service is operational, wait-time and delays, cost breakdown per passengers and hour, daily ridership statistics, and insights related to the deployment of the autonomous technology itself (e.g. increases and decreases in autonomy and disengagements, and a heatmap of “trouble areas” for use of autonomous features). And, drawing on lessons for the scrum, RIDOT will utilize these measures and develop user surveys to ensure that the lessons learned from this pilot can support future decision-making for Rhode Island, and as part of a rapidly evolving conversation around the country about how to integrate autonomous technology in the service of improving mobility outcomes for the traveling public.

While much is known about transportation’s past in Providence and Rhode Island, the future can only be gauged on today’s outcomes. RIDOT’s pilot is aimed at taking the uncertainty out of this type of innovation and steering the process with the public’s needs in mind.