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The role of shared autonomous vehicles in the mobility revolution

August 28, 2017

Focusing on moving people, not vehicles, is a paradigm shift that promotes accessible, inclusive, and equitable transportation

Just over 100 years after the advent of the first mass-produced automobiles, we find ourselves amid another transportation revolution. In terms of how we deliver and use transportation, not a lot has changed in the past 100 years. From Henry Ford’s Model T to today’s Ford F-150 or a Tesla electric sedan, personally-owned vehicles have shaped and dominated the landscape.

However, we are on the cusp of drastic change. Cities, planners, developers, automobile manufacturers, tech companies, and transit authorities are focusing not on how they move vehicles but how they move people. This paradigm shift, which promotes accessible, inclusive, and equitable transportation, might be more accurately referred to as a “mobility revolution.”

Shared Autonomous Vehicles are one of the most exciting new mobility prospects for implementation in dense, low-speed environments.

For all the new mobility gadgets—scooters, electric skateboards, narrow track vehicles, and more—none get more attention than the autonomous vehicle. Depending on who you talk to, the autonomous vehicle might have the power to: 1) deliver us into a utopian future of clean, quiet, and vibrant city life, or, 2) summon a congested and chaotic dystopia accelerating urban sprawl and disconnection. Luckily, we can design and influence the positive future we imagine. One way of doing this is by calling on the sharing economy for help.

While many autonomous vehicle functions and features are not yet perfected—or even imagined—one thing is for sure, “sharing” vehicles are key. The Shared Autonomous Vehicle (SAV) is one of the most exciting new mobility prospects for implementation in dense, low-speed environments. Current versions look more like public transportation vehicles than something you’d see in your neighbor’s driveway. These low-floor, wheelchair accessible, electric shuttles are intended to augment existing public transit lines or operate on private campuses like universities, hospitals, or airports. Generally, they carry between eight and 16 passengers. One of the greatest characteristics of this technology is that it gives us the opportunity to leverage existing infrastructure and deliver much more for much less. For instance, a more holistic transit plan might consist of a streetcar running through a designated corridor while a fleet of SAVs circulate through nearby developments, using existing roadways and bus stops, to feed the streetcar line with passengers.

SAVs utilize technologies such as powerful computers, lidar, radar, optical cameras, and GPS. They perceive the world around them, cross-reference that information with an embedded map of their operational environment, and make decisions dynamically based on their interpretation. Understanding the context in which these vehicles apply is crucial to mass-adoption. That’s why Stantec is busy researching and developing the ideal infrastructure improvements to foster SAVs and related technology.

These low-speed shuttles, operating in first/last-mile scenarios, can impact a city’s current modal splits. For instance, in a city like Denver, with a growing light-rail transit (LRT) network, SAVs could boost ridership by being deployed in neighborhoods and commercial districts near LRT stations. This could take many single-occupant vehicles off the road, reduce the need for parking at LRT stations, and spur new transit-oriented development.

Underserved populations will finally have a more sustainable mode of transportation as well. For many years, paratransit services have been an elderly or disabled person’s best on-demand transit option for doctors’ appointments or grocery shopping. These services, although helpful, are very expensive to operate. SAVs will help reduce the amount of subsidy currently needed for their service. Once fully deployed, a network of paratransit SAVs will improve the efficiency of the service by reducing dwell time and the overall cost. This will permit redistribution of funds to increase service and accommodate demand created by the aging baby boomer population during the next 20 years.

For so many years governments have been trying to build themselves out of congestion by subsidizing new freeway construction and widening old freeways. Now, with the help of SAVs and connected vehicle technology, we may finally have the tools to increase efficiency by being smarter with our current infrastructure.

With the introduction of SAVs, urban mixed-use developments could see new linkages to existing transit services and increased mobility, accessibility, and safety.

While many technologies show promise, it is important to remember there is no silver bullet to creating a safe, clean, and equitable transportation future. It will be the work of many technologies and citizens that help shape what new mobility means for their community. It is our job at Stantec to uncover and help implement those solutions.

Let us know in the comments what you think about SAVs or other new mobility options. Where could you see them being used in your community? How could they improve your daily commute or weekend activities?

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