Autonomous vehicles (“AVs”) are finally having their moment. On the cusp of becoming a reality, everyone from futurists to everyday drivers is talking about the promise of a new era in transportation, in which “drivers” can kick back and read a book, and collisions and accidents are vastly reduced.
And they may be correct. Done right, autonomous vehicles could indeed save many, if not most, of the 35,000 Americans killed in car crashes each year, reduce tailpipe emissions, and functionally extend mass transit into the suburbs with autonomous shuttles.
But without highly strategic planning and collaboration between the public and private sectors, they could just as easily produce traffic jams of empty vehicles, and bankrupted mass transit systems—increasing the gridlock that already plagues most modern cities instead of alleviating it.
Zipcar founder Robin Chase has described these scenarios as the “heaven or hell” of autonomous vehicles, arguing that heaven is only possible if cities and their citizens have an equal voice in guiding their introduction. The future of AVs is unquestionably urban—Bloomberg and McKinsey forecast that 70% of AVs sold in Europe and North America through 2030 will be in dense cities and their affluent suburbs.
To that end, last month URBAN-X—a venture accelerator founded by MINI— invited more than a hundred designers, policymakers, technologists, academics, and Brooklyn residents to its Greenpoint headquarters at A/D/O to debate the correct blend of innovation and regulation to set AVs in the right direction, and harness their true potential for the betterment of cities.
As an urban tech accelerator, URBAN-X is committed to solving the kinds of unique problems cities face—ones requiring multiple disciplines, stakeholders, and perspectives—by supporting the kinds of businesses and ideas that will make the city of the future a better place to live.
The resulting conversation, “Where the Robot Meets the Road,” moderated by FastCo.Works’ Greg Lindsay, Urban-X’s urbanist-in-residence, and led by a trio of experts, each specializing in a different aspect of urban mobility.
Corinne Kisner is the director of policy and special projects at NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which publishes street design guides privileging people over vehicles.
Zachary Wasserman runs global business development for Via, a fully dynamic on-demand shared ride-operating system that has begun licensing its software to both private companies and public transit agencies to power their own services.
And Varun Adibhatla is the cofounder of ARGO Labs, a nonprofit startup helping public sector agencies use data to deliver better services.
Early in the hour-long discussion, Adibhatla framed what’s at stake for cities by drawing comparisons to past technological revolutions in banking and telecommunications. “Roads are a physical network that’s being digitized,” he said, first by ride-hailing and soon, by AVs. When banking replaced analog pit traders with high-frequency trading algorithms, he noted, the costs of trading fell exponentially—and made markets susceptible to flash crashes. “How will that play out in roads?” he asked. “As gridlock!” Cities will quickly need to become savvier about the unintended consequences of AVs.
But how? Kisner warned it was important “not to let the technology get ahead of transit agencies,” and that the latter should partner with both tech companies like Via and local departments of transportation, which typically control the streets and who’s allowed to use them. This will be necessary to prevent AVs from running roughshod over dedicated bus and bike lanes.
“I fear transit agencies may be going about this wrong,” Wasserman interjected, pointing to the trend of cities in Florida and elsewhere choosing to subsidize ride-sharing in lieu of providing service. Simply outsourcing their responsibilities risked losing their relationship with customers and marginalizing the disabled.
In an example of a city that’s doing it right, he pointed to Via’s recent agreement with Austin’s Capital Metro to automate the city’s dial-a-ride service as an alternative arrangement, one which preserved service while sharing valuable data generated from those trips with the city.
Kisner made the case for collecting aggregated telemetry data to improve road safety, whether it comes from AVs, or ride-hail vehicles with human drivers. Intersections that routinely trigger hard braking, or cause vehicles to disengage autonomy should be redesigned.
Near the end of the conversation, one audience member asked about the role of government beyond cities, mayors, and local transit agencies. “Ultimately, we’re going to depend on government to create a holistic system involving insurance, maintenance, and right of way—is anybody there?”
Kisner noted that Uber and other ride-hail companies would love to see federal regulations on autonomous ride-sharing to pre-empt the costly political battles that have dogged them in each city. Wasserman believed leadership “needs to come from the top,” pointing to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $8 million “Mobility on Demand Sandbox” grant for prototyping new services.
Adibhatla generously described the new administration as “innovation first, consumer advocacy last,” arguing cities and states must assume the watchdog role on behalf of citizens.
The last question of the night addressed the elephant in the room (when that room happens to be affiliated with MINI): “Will we have less cars in the future, or more?”
The automakers are worried, ventured Wasserman. That’s why nearly all of them are least dabbling in new mobility services. At the same time, companies like BMW and MINI see massive opportunity in developing new business models that capitalize on shared ownership—offering their customers personalized mobility services.
Who needs to own a car when you can summon a different one for every conceivable situation? Adibhatla argued.
And does it matter if there are more or less cars on the road if the result is gridlock? Kisner countered.
In other words, will it be heaven… or hell? With smart planning and policy, strategic collaboration between automotive OEMs, tech startups, and public officials, and the right data, AVs don’t have to take us down a dark road.
This article was created and commissioned by MINI.
URBAN-X is an accelerator that invests in, educates, and advocates for companies shaping the future of cities through technology and design. Founded by MINI with joint venture partner SOSV, URBAN-X forges meaningful connections with leaders in the public and private sectors, helping its startups turn compelling ideas into viable, scalable solutions for urban life.