CES 2019: Avoiding a Dark Future of Autonomous Vehicles

A panel discussion on the first day of CES explored how Autonomous Vehicles could revitalize urban transit—or foment congestion and bad urbanism.

ces 2019 autonomous vehicles urban transportation
The CES panel discussion “Connecting the Autonomous World” explored how emerging technologies would shape transportation. From left to right: Gretchen Effgen, VP of Global Partnerships at Aptiv Autonomous Mobility; Michael Ger, general manager of automotive and manufacturing at Hortonworks; Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation; Crystal Rutland, CEO of Particle Design; and Anuja Sonalker, founder and CEO of Steer. Courtesy Metropolis

Architects and planners learned the hard way that letting technological innovation drive urban planning can be perilous. In the 20th Century, Modernists embraced the speed and personal independence of the automobile, creating congested and dehumanized cities that we’re still mending. Now, Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) promise to make cars vastly easier to use, thereby re-incentivizing personal car ownership and spurring cities to build around automobiles once again. As panelist Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), said today during a CES panel, “mobility is a great tool, but a terrible master.”

The panel in question—Connecting the Autonomous World—focused on the network of technologies that will define transportation in the near future. Throughout the discussion, the pervading sense was that cities and mobility companies were approaching a crossroads of sorts: In one scenario, AVs and related transportation innovations prove to be a huge opportunity for reinvention. AVs could seamlessly and wirelessly communicate with other transit systems (such as bikeshares, subways, and busses) creating a rich web of mobility options for consumers. For example, an Uber-style rideshare AV could communicate with a bikeshare location to ensure there’s a bike waiting for the last-mile leg of your trip. “Autonomy is a Trojan horse for [rethinking] how we move people,” said Reynolds. But there is a second, less-desirable scenario.

The darker future would see the re-establishment of personal car ownership. And it could really happen: at the moment, the private sector is only focusing on “getting [passengers] from point A to point B,” according to Crystal Rutland, another panelist and CEO of design agency Particle Design. That focus on seamless A-to-B movement would simply be a continuation of the experience rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft largely focus on creating: click a button, step into the car, let Waze work its magic, and wait until you arrive. While convenient, that approach neglects other forms of transit that take up much less space on the road. (Pretty much all other transit modes—bikes, walking, subways, buses—are more space-efficient compared to driving.) As cities get bigger and denser, the need for that kind of shared mobility will only grow.

ces 2019 autonomous vehicles urban transportation
The LADOT has developed what it calls the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a standardized data format that helps the agency track and manage “mobility providers” (such as shared e-bike and scooter companies). Seen here is a snapshot of its interface. Courtesy LA DOT

So what’s the solution? Thankfully, the first scenario has real time-saving advantages for passengers. Rutland said the most efficient journeys typically use multiple modes of transit (such as pooling a ride to a train station, then walking from the train to work). The key to encouraging technology companies to embrace that scenario, said Reynolds, is the involvement of the public sector. For example, the LADOT recently developed and launched its Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a common data standard and digital platform that helps the agency monitor and manage mobility providers (such as shared e-bike and scooter companies). The MDS helps the LADOT stay aware of how those companies are using its streets, but it’s also a level-setting tool: by transparently establishing shared metrics, the MDS helps companies understand the agency’s priorities. In an ideal scenario, those metrics and priorities become part of private sector companies’ DNA. “Cities need to think of themselves as activist investors [in high-tech transportation companies],” said Reynolds.

The MDS is a small step, but a step in the right direction. “If we stay in our silos,” added Reynolds, we should expect “more of the same for the next 50 years.”

Metropolis will be publishing a full-length interview with Seleta Reynolds this week. Stay tuned to our homepage!

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