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Mobility redefined: 4 takeaways from the driverless car summit

When it comes to driverless cars, the future is here

By Arya Rohani, Senior Principal (Irvine, CA)

Driverless cars, connected vehicles, robotaxis… whatever you call it, this futuristic technology is becoming closer to a reality than ever. As part of this evolution, last month saw the 2nd Redefining Mobility Summit in Concord, California. Over 300 participants were there, ranging from state legislators and public officials to technology and automotive company representatives. This was an exciting event for us at Stantec as we are the Program Managers for the organizer, Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA). Randy Iwasaki, the visionary CEO of CCTA, kicked-off the summit with his thoughts on how advanced technologies can help solve the mobility challenges we face.

So much has changed since the first summit, which was largely focused on exploring the possibilities of connected and autonomous vehicles. Now we’re seeing this technology actually happening! Here are some of the key highlights I took away from the summit:

Takeaway #1: Autonomous vehicles are real.
This is perhaps the biggest difference from last year’s summit. People not only believe in the technology now, but also in its inevitability. We’ve crossed the chasm from a foggy vision into a clearer roadmap, with real projects underway. In fact, the center of attention throughout the summit was GoMentum Station, the largest connected vehicle/autonomous vehicle (CV/AV) testbed in the United States. CCTA established GoMentum Station in 2014 with the direct support and participation of Stantec.

Takeaway #2: Governments are starting to get on board.
Perhaps the most impactful presentation was by California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, who described the recent legislation she introduced in Sacramento to allow for fully autonomous (no steering wheels, brake or gas pedals) shuttle testing at GoMentum Station and Bishop Ranch in northern California. Her leadership and advocacy has resulted in a 71-0 passage of the bill, which is on its way to becoming law. We were especially excited to hear her tell this story since Stantec played a pivotal role in supporting CCTA’s efforts to gain the attention of elected officials and pave the way for fully autonomous testing.

Takeaway #3: New products are making it easier to implement CV/AV.
Another benefit of helping make GoMentum Station the preeminent testbed of its kind was the strategic partnership we formed with the number-one manufacturer of shared autonomous vehicles (SAV), EasyMile. EasyMile develops fully electric mini shuttles, with a capacity of up to 12 people, that can fill the critical first mile/last mile gap in our mobility landscape. Today many travelers shun public transportation options due to the lack of attractive connections to their final destination from a train or bus station. The SAV alliance with EasyMile provides a cost-effective and highly flexible solution to the first mile/last mile challenge which will result in a more efficient transportation network providing reliable and environmentally friendly connections. This, in turn, will help enhance transit system ridership and, therefore, reduce single-occupant vehicle travel.

And this partnership is just one example. Companies like Ridecell are working with communities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles to develop innovative mobility strategies that incorporate CV/AV. Aarjav Trivedi, the CEO of Ridecell, shared his innovative company’s vision for reimagining and re-architecting transportation in urban areas using advanced software that promotes ride matching and integration of various transit service options.

Takeaway #4: Regional rail and air travel will change dramatically.
Autonomous vehicles made for carrying 6-12 passengers like those built by EasyMile will help alleviate congestion around rail stations by serving the first mile/last mile demand. At the same time, they can serve as airport circulators taking passengers to and from parking garages and airport terminals. And the operational flexibility offered by AV technology lends itself to deployment models tailored to specific requirements. AV shuttles can operate on a fixed route basis or be called on demand via smartphones, for example. Single-occupant AVs can help reduce airport and rail station parking (and therefore congestion) challenges by dropping off the passenger and parking themselves in remote and less congested parking facilities.

It’s thrilling to be on the front lines of this exciting technology. This time last year, attendees at this summit were excited but still discussing this vision in very future terms. But now, only a year later, we’ve come remarkably far. This is real, and people are noticeably excited and invested in that reality. Discussions like the ones at the Redefining Mobility Summit are fostering more and better communication and networking between government and industry. With our combined forces, by this time next year, we may be taking autonomous vehicles to and from the summit. It’s an exciting prospect!

Arya Rohani, PE, is a transportation and technology expert who’s been leading Stantec’s involvement in autonomous vehicles.

More on driverless cars and the future of transportation:

Testing is underway at the GoMentum Station in Northern California – the largest autonomous vehicle test bed facility in North America. Image courtesy of the CCTA

Arya speaking at the Redefining Mobility Summit

We’ve crossed the chasm from a foggy vision into a clearer roadmap, with real projects underway.

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