Discussing the future of transit with Dr. Josipa Petrunic

In November SPBID’s Director of Real Estate & Planning, Josh Kreger, gave us some insight into the ways the growth of autonomous vehicles will reshape the public realm. Shortly after, the Los Angeles Auto Show brought transportation leaders from all over the world to South Park for AutoMobility LA. There, we were introduced to Dr. Josipa Petrunic, Executive Director and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC). Dr. Petrunic took some time to (very thoroughly!) answer our questions about the potential of autonomous vehicles, the role of the public sector, electric buses, and preparing the streetscape and the public for these new technologies. Check out AutoMobility LA’s recap video, and scroll down for the interview.

Highlights from AutoMobility Conference

What do you see as the best structure for how autonomous vehicles can improve mobility in dense, urban areas? Is it through public micro-transit vehicles, private ridesharing vehicles, or some other structure?

Low-speed electrified autonomous shuttles (LSAs) that support micro-transit innovation constitute the best “autonomous vehicle” mechanism for reducing emissions from transportation by driving ridership to on-demand electrified first-mile/last-mile shuttle services. These vehicles can avoid increased operational costs for transit agencies, while offering driver-free connection services that connect suburbanites and city-dwellers to transit hubs and other popular locales that are difficult or challenging to get to on foot or by any mobility mode other than car travel.

These types of autonomous vehicles privilege the concept of shared mobility rather than autonomous individual mobility — that latter of which drives up congestion and pollution, especially if the vehicles driven are petroleum-based combustion engine systems.

At the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), we have designed and are working to launch a national nine-city demonstration project that integrates a variety of low-speed electrified shuttles carrying 12 to 15 passengers each from popular transit hubs — such as LRT stations, subway stations, inter-regional train stations, and university and industrial campuses — to popular end-points, such as malls, theatres, science centres, and community facilities (like a YMCA). This project aims to directly reduce the number of cars parked at nearby facilities, and demonstrate an increase in ridership due to shared mobility modes, including LSAs plus transit services. The project is also meant to drive forward the integration of interoperable and standardized vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-X communications, as well as ensure standardized cybersecurity protocols are in place to ensure the safety of passengers using the driverless systems.

In brief, autonomous technologies can help reduce emissions, optimize traffic patterns, and radically improve mobility for everyone if they are implemented in vehicular technologies that are guided by the principles of shared mobility and transit system integration. Anything less than that fails to leverage autonomous vehicle technology as a mechanism that can improve the human condition rather than worsen it.

It seems much of the discussion and advancements around autonomous vehicles is coming from the private sector. How would you suggest the public sector become more involved in shaping an autonomous vehicle future? What has CUTRIC done in Canada to bring the public and private sectors together on this issue?

It is true today that the private automotive sector is grabbing most headlines vis-à-vis autonomous vehicle technologies, which — in the auto world — essentially allow drivers the privilege of commuting long-distances alone in their cars, while enjoying the economic luxury of a living room experience. Those headline-grabbing sales efforts by the automotive sector are frequently wrapped up in the language of hypothesized “safety” improvements. These efforts and innovations ignore, however, the serious urban challenges of congestion and car-based roadway use. To the extent these AVs are ICE vehicles or electrified vehicles operating in coal-based grid systems, the hype around AVs in personal cars also ignore the local and global emissions challenges associated with car travel overall. And while there may be safety improvements from increasing autonomy of single passenger cars in the future, empirical evidence in practice has yet to demonstrate this fact.

There is an equally profound, if not more engaging, environmental and safety push emanating from the public sector through the channels of transit agencies adopting or seeking to integrate low-speed electrified autonomous shuttles. This is where our global focus should be — at least, this is where our focus should be if we are serious about emissions reductions, car travel reductions, “smart” city growth, and roadway safety improvements over the long-term.

Several leading Canadian transit agencies — such as York Region Transit, north of Toronto — view low-speed electrified autonomous shuttles (LSAs) as an opportune mechanism for drawing drivers out of their cars and into reliable, safe, and clean shared mobility and transit services.

Transit agencies (and their municipal backers) have been slow to grab headlines because municipal efforts in these regards need to go through multiple bureaucratic and political layers of Council approval (which implies Councils are educated about the technologies and their value first) and multi-jurisdictional co-funding bids to generate enough upfront capital to launch projects in the short term.

This slowness in process approvals does not mean transit agencies are absent from the dialogue, however. They are chipping away behind the scenes working towards the championship of improved lower emissions, safer, faster and more reliable services through first-mile/last-mile solutions across North America.

The tipping point — in terms of headline grabbing technology advancements — will occur once the continent’s largest transit systems — namely, the Toronto Transit Commission, Montreal’s Societé de Transport, Vancouver’s TransLink, Calgary Transit, NYC Transit, Chicago Transit Authority, and LA Metro start — start launching and advertising large scale commercial deployments across a multiplicity of routes, rather than one-off tiny pilot projects involving one or two shuttles on show for a truncated period of time.

Government investment today is required to move things faster in this regard. Government investment into LSAs and first-mile/last-mile solutions means bureaucrats and politicians need to adopt higher-than-normal risk and higher-than-normal upfront capital investments in exchange for long-term returns on investment through emissions reductions, increased ridership, and operational savings. Convincing city decision-makers to make these types of decisions involves a level of cultural transformation that is happening most rapidly in jurisdictions where carbon pricing mechanisms exist, whether that be through Cap and Trade carbon pricing or direct carbon taxation.

The pricing of carbon in several North American jurisdictions has brought forward the Day of Reckoning for fleet owners and transportation systems overall; transit agencies and municipalities in carbon priced marketplaces are able to make more robust economic arguments in favour of LSA adoption today on the basis of existing carbon emissions pricing and expected or mandated future increases to those prices.

In sum, the auto sector has a lead, but the future of low-carbon smart mobility is with cities. Their time is coming and carbon pricing is catalyzing the process. The next variable to support this city-led transformation in AV adoption through LSAs for first-mile/last-mile solutions will be road pricing (i.e. pricing kilometers driven in passenger cars). Layered on top of carbon pricing, road pricing (or kilometer-pricing) will drive people out of their autonomous cars — including their autonomous electric single passenger cars –autonomous electric shared shuttles more rapidly than any moral argument about the woes of climate change can achieve.

Over the next decade, Los Angeles transit agencies will transition to fully electric bus fleets. What benefits will this transition have for urban neighborhoods? How do electric buses currently stack up to CNG buses in terms of cost, durability, and range and what demonstration projects has CUTRIC worked on to encourage this transition?

Battery electric buses (BEBs) offer a range of operational cost reductions, emissions savings, and allied social benefits for transit agencies. In our own predictive modelling, we have identified an operational cost reduction associated with BEBs across a variety of utility landscapes that represent diverse electricity and demand pricing structures, which affect transit agencies when they “go electric” using a range of low-powered (80–100kW) and high-powered (300–450kW) charging systems on route and at depots.

To date we have modelled dozens of routes using a variety of BEB makes and models along with a plethora of charging infrastructure options. Systems we have modelled out include Vancouver, Red Deer, Winnipeg, Toronto, Kingston, Thunderbay, Burlington, London, Windsor, Oakville, York Region, Brampton Transit and Halifax — among others. At CUTRIC, we find consistently that BEBs are cheaper to operate compared to diesel buses from an immediate fueling/charging perspective and over a life-cycle of 12 to 18 years, even when maintenance and refurbishment costs are taken into account (including battery upgrades at years seven and/or 12). In some cases, the savings are as high as $180,000 CAD per bus per year of operation; in other cases, the savings are much less, at around $20,000 CAD per bus per year. The savings vary based on route topography, ridership (i.e. weight) variables, average speeds between stops, number of stop-starts, design of the specific make and model of BEB, local prices for diesel, and local pricing for electricity (both low- and high-powered delivery).

This analysis motivated the design, funding and current launch of CUTRIC’s $45Million Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial: Phase I, which integrates 18 electric buses (by New Flyer Industries and Nova Bus) across five routes spread over three transit agencies, including TransLink (in Vancouver), York Region Transit (north of Toronto), and Brampton Transit (also north of Toronto). These BEBs will plug into and charge by virtue of seven overhead opportunity chargers, provided by ABB and Siemens, at 450kW. All systems — buses and chargers — have been designed to be fully interoperable such that New Flyers and Novas will operate on the same route and plug into the same chargers; both ABB and Siemens chargers will also exist on those routes as charging tools interoperating with the New Flyer and Nova buses. The goal of the Project is total interoperability of BEBs and charging systems across Canada. It took nearly two years of lobbying, but eventually all three levels of government (federal, provincial and municipal) across two provinces and three cities came to the table to co-fund and launch the initiative, which is meant to drive job growth locally among our manufacturing and utility partners.

In parallel, CUTRIC is now pursuing a Pan-Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell Bus Electric Bus (FCEB) Project, and a Natural Gas Mobility Innovation Initiative. We are currently completing our first round of predictive analysis for the FCEBs. In early stage modelling, we have determined the lowest level of water consumption and lowest well-to-wheel emissions based on the highest efficiency gains that can be extracted from FCEBs powered by hydrogen that is electrolyzed from a “green grid” — i.e. hydro-electric, wind, solar or nuclear powered grids, as exist in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia in Canada today. Over the next few months we will be completing the economic and operational costs analysis of those technology applications with transit agency and utility partners, whereby utilities are interested in determining whether transit-owned hydrogen fueling stations could store renewable and intermittent energy (say, from solar slumps during hot daytime hours of the summer) and therefore qualify for valuable carbon offsets in carbon priced markets in the future. More information will be available about this project in upcoming months.

In comparison, we have just started the technical planning process for our Natural Gas Mobility Innovation Initiative. Here, we are trying to identify routes and transit landscapes where natural gas makes the most sense given the technology readiness of natural gas propulsion and fueling systems, and given the lack of readiness of battery electric alternatives. For example, inter-city or regional high-way rapid coach and transit services that help people commute from east of Toronto to west of Toronto (say, Oshawa to Hamilton) along a specialized or dedicated lane on Highway 407 (a Toll Road) has been proposed as one such option. In this case, there is not battery electric coach technology that can serve current ridership needs, speeds, topography, and low down-time for the high-powered charging systems that would be required for such a route. Yet, such long-distance, low-cost, high-speed transit routes offer much cheaper options for inter-city passenger movement without the need for rail infrastructure investment. Over time, the goal for such a route would be to transition the source of fuel in the NG coaches or buses used away from fracked sources or conventional sources towards renewable natural gas (RNG) from local waste and agricultural feedstock. Currently, my team at CUTRIC is working to develop a model that will predict how much RNG would be needed, and whether local supplies can furnish sufficient RNG for such transit applications over the long-term. Based on our upcoming modelling, we will determine whether there is a case for lobbying governments to co-investment in a long-distance natural gas mobility innovation project in the interest of improved mobility, environmentalism, and municipal economics.

Without a doubt, RNG is going to play an important role in the cyclical economy of waste recovery and energy recycling in the future. Its optimal or most useful application to transportation is not yet determined, but that — in my view — is a grand opportunity rather than a reason to despair.

In terms of redeveloping the streetscape in anticipation of autonomous and electric transportation, what should be the priorities for Downtown neighborhoods? What physical changes should we incorporate into current infrastructure projects to be prepared for the future?

Future proofing is key to the design, development and realization of “smart cities” that are green, clean, and livable. Simply put, “future proofing” means thinking about infrastructure as a site for technology innovation, and building “smart” or “charged” infrastructure that is designed to achieve specific goals associated with emissions reduction, productive mobility, and high-quality low-cost livability.

Cities that are serious about pursuing emissions reductions because of local climate change action plans or local health policies that target air pollutants must plan for electrification. There is no way to get around it. That means every new transit station or hub, every new shelter, every new bridge, and every new road that is built must be built with electrification capabilities embedded or — at minimum — with sufficient sub-station capabilities nearby. The laws of physics (at least Newtonian physics and electromagnetism) are predictable at the macro-scale. The power levels and energy levels required by, say, a growing community that is economically pushed (by smart city policies) towards electric shared mobility can be calculated, predicted and planned for today. This isn’t mysticism or potion making. It’s technical planning with predictable outcomes. “Future proofing” a low-emissions city means building all roadway, all stations, and all bricks-and-mortar installations with electrification capabilities baked in from Day One on the basis that shared mobility (trains, streetcars, buses, coaches, and low-speed autonomous shuttles) will increase due to population growth and urban densification, and that mobility will be electrified to a large extent.

In sum, cities need to embed “electrification planning” into requests for proposals (RFPs) and other public tender documentation that identifies development and construction partnerships. This is a base minimum.

However, “future proofing” for “smart-enabled” cities that support autonomous shuttles and on-demand, optimized shared fleets of vehicles also requires the mainstreaming and integration of digital infrastructure into cityscapes. As with electrical equipment, digital equipment (sensors, controls, and communications towers, among other communication equipment), digital infrastructure will need to be built into our urban environment everywhere.

Humanity is just at the beginning of this type of city-led digital infrastructure innovation. Thinking about the quality, robustness and extensiveness of our local urban digital highways is critical for every city counsellor or urban designer who hopes to be part of a future low-carbon advanced mobility solution. At the moment, it’s usually thought of after the fact — after the bridge is built or after the tar is laid and cooled we think about whether and how we should “smart” enable that piece of dumb infrastructure. From a cost perspective, that’s too late. From an innovation perspective, it’s deadly — late-thinking and late-planning about digital infrastructure integration and mainstreaming into cityscapes stops mobility innovation dead in its tracks.

One way to change the inertia around tech-savvy future proofed city planning is to launch large-scale commercialization trials with industry partners in segments of cities on a test-case basis to prove the value of such installations. These types of efforts cost more money than most private sector companies will put down on their own, so taxpayers will need to play the role of “riskophile” investor in the short-term to push the bulge of inaction through the tight pin hole it’s gotten stuck in for the past half century.

Sometimes a champion city Mayor or an active city Councillor can achieve this locally in an instance; sometimes a boisterous Premier or State governor can do the same. But relying on the political will of temporarily elected officials is not a sustainable game plan for a future that is systematically free of local pollution, congestion or climate challenges. Rather, bureaucracies need to be overhauled with new mandates and new talent; local transportation departments need to be staffed with new personnel capable of understanding the benefits and challenges associated with advanced transportation technologies, both physical and digital.

Transportation and infrastructure ministries and departments needs to transform themselves to focus on technology and infrastructure innovation, and innovation investment, as their raison d’etre, otherwise it’s difficult to see how we will break the pattern of procuring and building dumb cement stuff without a view to the mobility needs of the 21st century.

Some recent surveys have highlighted a significant cautiousness from the public regarding autonomous vehicles and their perceived safety and acceptance. What do you think needs to happen in terms of public education for the technology to be widely accepted by the public? How can the public-sector help with that education?

Public education comes in many forms.

At CUTRIC, we believe in the show-and-tell version of education; we work to design and launch technology projects in local communities with a consortium of private and public partners. In part, we do this because there is safety and resiliency in numbers; when a project gets difficult or faces financial, political or social challenges, the consortium is big enough to absorb the risk and ensure somewhere, somehow, the project does get launched even if not in its original intended form. Once a project is funded and launched, we work to get the project in the public eye and ensure — through marketing, branding and public relations –that the project becomes a part of the community, owned by the people who live in the area, and subjected to their needs and hopes.

Technologies that are introduced as disruptive tools that make a lot of money for some people, help a few people, and marginalize or peripheralize a whole host of people create their own barriers for no reason other than poor planning. At CUTRIC, we believe public education means riders, drivers, operators, and decision-makers need to see the technology introduced to their community as something that drives up the value of their homes, makes their kids safer, improves the cleanliness of their streets and adds to the quality of their lives.

The launch of low-speed electrified autonomous shuttles (LSAs) as first-mile/last-mile solutions in partnership with LSA manufacturers, local transit agencies, and local university researchers is intended to achieve these educational goals. As a large demonstration and integration trial, this project is more valuable than a one-off short-term pilot where the vehicle is here today, gone tomorrow, and has no lasting effect. But as a “trial”, the community is still made aware that the technology needs improvement and community feedback to be optimized and ameliorated — it’s here to stay, but it needs help, and the community has the power to help it, shape it, and own it as it sees fit.

Josipa G. Petrunic is the Executive Director & CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC). She is leading the formulation of several national transportation technology trials related to zero-emissions transportation and “smart vehicles” innovation, including the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial, the Pan-Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell Demonstration & Integration Trial and the Canadian National Smart Vehicle Demonstration Project. Dr. Petrunic has built up CUTRIC’s consortium to include more than 100 private and public sector companies and organizations across Canada. Previously, she served as the lead researcher in electric vehicle policy studies at McMaster University, and as a senior research fellow at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom in Science and Technology Studies and the history of mathematics and engineering. She completed her PhD in the History of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) as a Commonwealth Scholar, after completing a Master’s of Science in Science and Technology Studies (STS), also as a Commonwealth Scholar. She previously completed a Master’s of Science in Political Philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Journalism at Carleton University. Before pursuing graduate studies, Dr. Petrunic worked as a journalist at the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Edmonton Journal. Dr. Petrunic continues to lecture in Globalization Studies at McMaster University as part of the Institute for Globalization, and she lectures in interdisciplinary research methods as part of the Master’s of Arts in Integrated Studies program at Athabasca University.