Autonomous Vehicles: The New Cloud

Technology is a funny thing. When we first encounter something new it seems strange and alien, a bit scary. But it doesn’t take long for truly innovative changes to become so enmeshed in our daily lives that we can’t remember what it was like to live without them. Just a few short years ago, many of us were still pecking away at word processors. Then we made the shift to desktops, and then laptops. All the while, we saved our work to hard drives or floppy discs. Try showing a floppy disc to a teenager now. You might as well show them hieroglyphics. It seems like an ancient artifact. With the advent of the cloud, the floppy disc went the way of the Edsel. Just a few short years ago, the cloud seemed more like pie in the sky than an actual data storage solution. But now, as many as one-quarter of the American workforce telecommutes, and that is possible because we can all simultaneously access centrally stored documents. The cloud has revolutionized how we work. And that, my friends, is how autonomous technology is going to change the landscape of public transportation. It won’t happen overnight. But it’s going to happen soon. Very soon.

Sure, self-driving cars are getting most the media attention these days, but autonomous vehicles in the form of small buses are getting in on the action, too. They aren’t quite ready to hit the road en masse yet (autonomous buses are more difficult to engineer than their car cousins because of their size and more intricate operating requirements), but the industry is making advances at breakneck speed and there are lots of super interesting pilot programs up-and-running in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Just last month, California allowed the first driverless bus to hit the road in San Ramon. Las Vegas is testing out an autonomous shuttle. In Florida, Jacksonville and Babcock Ranch both have pilot tests underway. And check out these cool videos of this emerging technology at work in Austin, Texas and Bloomington, Indiana. 

In general, self-driving buses are electric or battery powered, and are able to maneuver on the roadway based on data they collect from technology like sensors, LIDAR, cameras, and GPS.  They have no steering wheel, no brake pedal, no accelerator and no driver (I know, freaky!). The current crop of autonomous buses are typically smaller than the average 40-foot public transit bus and carry about a dozen passengers.

In addition to being really cool harbingers of the future, driverless buses could bring a lot to the transportation table because they meet a wide variety of needs. They are perfect for use on college campuses, in retirement communities, as airport shuttles and as transportation from employee parking lots to corporate building. Some transit agencies and organizations are also looking at them to solve that pesky first and last mile problem. Their small size and adaptability make them ideal for flexible service – for picking up passengers at various and transporting them to a public transit hub.

Autonomous vehicles could also help reduce expenses. Labor is often a large line item in any agency’s budget. Driverless vehicles could help cut that cost. Moreover, autonomous buses are environmentally friendly. Because they are electric or battery-powered, they produce fewer carbon emissions.  Some industry experts speculate that the innate flexibility of autonomous buses will make them so appealing more people will give up their cars for them, thus reducing overall traffic congestion. Finally, and perhaps most important, advocates are hopeful that self-driving buses will reduce vehicle accidents due to human error.

So, while self-driving shuttles are still in the pilot stage, many in the industry are predicting they will be the wave of the not-so-distant future in public transit and, and quite frankly, we’re tickled pink. Remember that scene in E.T. when Drew Barrymore first meets the gentle alien with the big, gourd-like head. The two of them are so shocked, they shriek in tandem. Well, for some of us autonomous vehicles have a bit of that futuristic, frightening feel. But sooner than you can say “it’s stored in my cloud” they’re going to be traveling down your street, and you’re going to welcome those vehicles into your life.

Molly Lepine