WASHINGTON— A sleek minibus cruises the streets of National Harbor, Maryland, stopping for walkways and making clean turns. The black-and-white vehicle rolls up to street curbs where riders who have summoned it with an app stand waiting, all the while avoiding obstacles and pedestrians. A set of sliding doors open to reveal wrap-around benches where 12 passengers can ride. But there is no driver’s seat, no steering wheel. And most importantly, no driver.
This self-driving shuttle, called “Olli,” debuted on the campus-like waterfront development that comprises National Harbor in June 2016. Olli was designed by Local Motors, a Phoenix firm aiming to tackle congestion and streamline shared transportation.
It took about 800 trips during a pilot program, and is expected to resume operation in July.
“This wasn’t just a small bus, it was an autonomous, environmentally friendly, smart, and specialized solution,” said David Woessner, general manager of Local Motors National Harbor. “It was meant to be a system, not just a vehicle.”
“The first Olli riders loved it. People in the DMV area constantly calling, wondering when Olli is coming back,” Woessner said, using the acronym referring to the greater Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia community. “It’s a great way to see how people are feeling about self-driving.”
As the autonomous vehicle revolution progresses, self-driving vans occupy a new niche in the ecosystem. Automakers like Tesla, General Motors, and Alphabet unit Waymo are pushing self-driving vehicles to the market, aiming to make self-driving personal vehicles available to consumers by 2020.
Olli uses autonomous vehicle technology for a semi-public mode of transportation. Its system mirrors ride-hailing and ride-sharing services already available to consumers. Companies like Uber and Lyft allow almost anyone to run a taxi service from their personal vehicle, connecting passengers with drivers through a convenient smartphone app.
New facets of these applications allow multiple passengers that are heading in the same direction to share one ride at a much cheaper rate. “UberPOOL” and “Lyft Line” take requests for rides, calculate the most efficient way to get multiple people where they’re going, and the driver follows that route.
Olli does this on a larger scale, accommodating up to twelve passengers where the shared apps, that work in passenger vehicles with a driver, can only fit three or four. A Mexico City startup called Jetty uses a similar approach using a fleet of shared vans, offering rides that are summoned and routed through an app for multiple riders at once.
Jetty’s founder, Onésimo Flores Dewey, said services like Olli and Jetty should be more affordable than UberPOOL or Lyft Line. A ride in Jetty costs around US$2, about twice as much as a Mexico City public bus, but far more affordable than an Uber, which he said would hover around $6 there.
“This model is increasing the supply of service [and] reducing the cost,” said Flores, who lectures at the MIT School of Urban Studies and Planning. “Can we preserve the flexibility, safety, responsiveness of a city without compromising safety, comfort and accountability?”
Flores said these forms of “quasi-informal transit systems” serve to connect people otherwise reliant on urban mass transit or expensive ride-sharing services. He said the public sector is not keeping up with the auto industry’s advancements toward self-driving vehicles.
“[Shared autonomous vehicles] establish standards that the government has not been able to supply,” Flores said. “They endorse [ride-sharing in] areas that are not bikeable, walkable, and are very far from the buses or subways.”
Public transportation systems often fail to innovate, said Flores, who doubts that autonomous vehicle technology will be implemented in public buses or trains any time soon.
As the public sector lags behind in the industry’s push to design autonomous systems, intermediary forms of self-driving could hit a sweet spot in cost, efficiency, and comfort that would change the way we move en masse. Somewhere between a personal system like Uber and a public bus “might do the trick,” said Flores.
But some experts warn that autonomous vehicles could harm the public sector. Dr. John Stone of the Melbourne School of Design warns against direct competition between autonomous vehicles and options like public buses.
“You can’t get enough people to concentrate in central city areas — get a city to work — if everybody’s in an individual vehicle,” Stone said. “Transit works best for bringing people to the nodes of a system.”
Stone fears that companies like Uber and Lyft will develop driverless models that will compete with transit rather than linking between disparate parts of a transit system. Autonomous vehicles and mass transit “all have to be a part of the same system,” he says.
But Robert Grant, a director of public policy for Lyft, said autonomous vehicles won’t hinge on personal cars, which he said currently make up 70% of vehicles on the road.
“The future of AVs will reduce [personal vehicles],” he said. “It will require behavioral changes, people will have to get used to sharing rides.”
Grandy Gammage, a professor at Arizona State University, said these developments in technology will impact cities in a way that mimics how the automobile itself evolved. Shared transport solutions will take hold because they will be more convenient than individual autonomous car ownership, Flores Dewey said.
“Car ownership is no longer practical. Why own an expensive asset like a car when you can summon one with a switch?” he said. “Why buy an apartment with a parking spot when you can summon one from a fleet of autonomous vehicles that are ready for people to share?”
Experts predict self-driving technologies will change the ways people move, and it will mean a more efficient system. But they worry about the societal implications of cities full of driverless vehicles.
“There’s a social component of interaction with the driver that some people value,” Stone said. But others seek to avoid others, he said, which is “just why they get in their car.”
Safety is another factor that will affect the evolution of self-driving vans. A self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Ariz. Sunday, marking the first fatality due to a driverless car. The crash raised scrutiny about the safety of driverless cars, and experts say risk will grow when an AV is responsible for the many riders of a van or bus.
Local Motors also has what it calls a “microfactory” in Tempe — Arizona, like Maryland, does not have regulations on self-driving vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles might feel risky without the guidance of an assigned, paid driver. Grant raised one issue: “If you take the driver out, how are you going to ensure safety in a shared ride?”
The design of multi-passenger driverless vehicles should take these safety concerns into account, Stone said.
“It may be that the design of these things has lots of little pods inside,” Stone said. “You’re sharing the travel but you don’t have to have anything to do with your neighbor.”
Stone said many consumers in the states aren’t anticipating the driverless revolution to mean more collective transportation. He said some consumers “absolutely can’t get their heads around the shared vehicle.”
“People think, ‘I have a car now, what would it be like if I had a car that I didn’t have to drive it — but I’d still have my car?’” Stone said. “That’s the image people have at the moment. There’s so much cultural baggage attached with the personal vehicle.”
Just like the desire to drive might keep people from sacrificing their steering wheel to a self-driving car, the cultural value of owning a car might hold some back from participating in shared systems of driverless transit.