Driving towards the democratization of autonomous vehicles

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Over the past three years, Boston, Lyon and Montreal have been conducting atypical pilot projects that test out autonomous vehicles in real-life urban environments. Some 100 years ago, the “motordom” — an alliance representing the interests of automobile manufacturers, dealerships and motor clubs — spearheaded the internal combustion vehicle revolution on a global scale. Today, the three aforementioned metropolises are the ones setting the terms, rather than being subjected to the paradigm shift later on down the road.  

 

Re-conquering public space

As pointed out by Kristopher Carter, Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics for the City of Boston, “Cities are for people and technology should be responsive to that goal.” At a time when urban traffic and air pollution have reached saturation levels, normalizing self-driving vehicles would allow us to “re-conquer public space from private car use by way of eco-friendly modes of transportation, as well as urban planning,” says Pierre Soulard, Urban Mobility Director for Lyon.

This could represent an ideal opportunity to improve upon intra-urban travel — should we choose to implement it.

 

Taking roads by storm

Without any behind-the-scenes planning, Boston, Lyon and Montreal all took similar approaches to the progressive deployment of driverless vehicles onto city streets. All three focused on automated shuttles (minibuses with a capacity of about twelve people) in neighbourhoods undergoing revitalization, deliberately turning their backs on private vehicles. First and foremost, the cities held public consultations on their respective projects, then tested the first autonomous vehicles on roads that were cordoned off from traffic, before extending them to the open road and eventually considering the experiments conclusive enough to draft relevant public policy.

«Autonomous vehicles present an opportunity for us to improve performance, coverage and efficiency when it comes to our public transit systems»
– Pierre Soulard, City of Lyon


This new technology should “make the streets safer, the public commute more accessible, more efficient, more reliable and more predictable,” states Carter, who applied these very same requirements to the pilot project carried out in Boston.

 

New connections

No accidents were reported in any of the cities during preliminary driverless deployments. Focusing on automated shuttles is a short-term solution that’s “more economically viable” and creates “new connection solutions,” to the point of even “imagining new forms of urban planning,” notes Soulard. Without predicting how all of it will come together in the future, he does report that these experiments have allowed the city to “assimilate connected vehicle technologies” and “move forward” even if private autonomous vehicles have little chance of becoming the norm before 2040.

Most of all, Soulard underscores, these initiatives allow for an alternative vision, “pointing toward another way when it comes to driverless vehicles, different than the one proposed by automobile manufacturers and pure players — i.e. the private car.”

“With the advent of driverless vehicles, it’s time to have a conversation about the kind of city we want to build,” explains Montreal city hall’s Stéphane Guidoin. It’s also time to get excited about the fact that “several cities are speaking the very same language to operators and manufacturers alike.”

 

This article is based on the following working session given at the 2019 Movin’On Summit: “From pilot project to passing lane: Integrating autonomous vehicles into our communities and multimodal transit systems” by Fouziya Bouzerda (SYSTRA), Kristopher Carter (City of Boston), Stéphane Guidoin (City of Montréal), Arnaud Leroy (ADEME), Pierre Soulard (City of Lyon).