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The Short Road Ahead: are autonomous vehicles in our near future?

City of Vancouver, Translink and Uber come together at UBC SCARP symposium to discuss AV technology and ride-share services

With the recent announcement of Uber coming to Vancouver in as early as a couple of months, new opportunities also bring a changing landscape for the future of Vancouver’s transportation.

These changes were discussed at the ninth annual UBC SCARP symposium last month, where a particularly audacious standout was a session on transit and autonomous vehicles (AV), where employees of TransLink, Uber, and the City of Vancouver came together to discuss the excitement, fear, and unknowns about AV technology in our not-so-distant future.

According to The Future of Driving, a 2016 report from TransLink, fully-automated vehicles use sensors, communications, and computing to perform all the functions of driving. These vehicles operate without a driver in all conditions. The Society of Automotive Engineers produced a sliding scale, with level 0 being no automation and level 6 being fully automated to show how AV technology has and will continue to evolve.

At the highest levels, it’s said that complete automation would reduce the number of crashes and driving-related deaths, as well as remove the variables of disability or driving age. And while it wasn’t long ago that only the science fiction of the Jetsons could imagine a world of driverless vehicles, many experts are now saying we can expect them on our streets in under five years.

Paul Krueger, planner at the City of Vancouver, is concerned with the impact that this will have for cities. In the fall, the US government released a comprehensive policy document on self-driving cars that included safety, data sharing, and privacy, as well as developed jurisdictional boundaries for streamlined use across states. Canada is hot on the trail, and the province of BC is waiting for federal administration before giving the green light to putting AV projects on the ground.

“What’s missing is that there is nothing to discourage sprawling car-oriented communities or to encourage good urban planning. Cities and other levels of government will have to step up and fill the void,” Krueger said.

Some of these things, Kreuger imagines, would include higher emphasis on pickup and drop-off zones, encouraging a shared approach to AVs, and reallocating road space to make cities more vibrant and livable. “You might see fewer or narrower travel lanes, fewer or no on street parking,” he said. “This leaves more space for civic priorities like walking, biking, and public space, and smart infrastructure so everything can operate seamlessly together.”

Of the many trends in the automotive world, car sharing is at the forefront. Vancouver is a global leader in this field, with a quarter of all adults in the city holding at least one membership to programs such as Car2Go or Evo.

James LaPointe, senior planner of mobility and innovation at TransLink, points out that while AV technology will initially be a luxury few people can afford, he believes that the market will eventually drive down the price, and will be amplified further through these car sharing programs and ride-sourcing services such as Uber and Lyft.  “Mobility is becoming a commodity, the number of different forms of services coming to market, increasingly enabled by technology, are transforming mobility as we currently understand it,” LaPointe said.

Looking to shake up the roads is Uber, the ride-source tour de force which has finally announced plans to start rolling out its service on Vancouver streets by the end of the year. While the provincial government is promising policy to create a level playing field with existing taxi services, there is concern that Uber will be at an unfair advantage, and could even see the end of Vancouver’s robust transit system.

“Ride-sharing is complementary to public transit,” said Michael van Hemmen, Uber’s public policy manager of Western Canada. With the increase in reliability and outreach to city suburbs, van Hemmen believes that Uber serves as the first and last mile in someone’s travels. “We’re filling a gap in the transportation system, because most of these trips are taking place when transit service isn’t readily available,” he said.

There is also public concern over Uber’s ability to provide accessible service to all riders. “In Vancouver, taxis play a really big role in providing accessible transit service for people who have a mobility impairment. Taxis fill the gap for a lot of people,” said Krueger. A high percentage of available taxis in Vancouver are equipped to handle mobility impairment, and the drivers have received that training. When it comes to accessibility, van Hemmen doesn’t see Uber as a problem. “We don’t look at taxis as competition; we want to replace you driving yourself.”

In the end, AV use comes down to ownership. If Uber used AV technology on UberPools, which allows you to share rides with other passengers who are going in the same direction and split the cost, there would be fewer cars on the road and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Van Hemmen points out that cars sit unused 96% of the time, which takes up a lot of valuable space. AV could be beneficial to transit, too, as buses could be enhanced to improve safety and focus more on customer service.

One of the biggest concerns about this new technology is zero-occupancy vehicles.There’s a dystopian fear that zombie car fleets will wander the city, waiting for their owners to call them back to the grocery store where it dropped them off. Kreuger hopes that cities will implement mobility pricing, to discourage urban sprawl and longer trips with low occupancy rates. Likewise, Van Hemmen believes there will be a collaborative solution to the inefficiencies of AV technology. “There will be a basin with human drivers for a very long time still,” he said, which will allow both ride-share services and transit to see the impact before integrating the AV technology in the most efficient manner.

While there is both unbridled enthusiasm and concerned skepticism with the not-so-distant future of AV technology, there are still many questions to be answered. One thing for sure, is that the City of Vancouver will work with transit and ride-share services to integrate as seamlessly as possible. “Our role as a transportation authority is to ensure that a lot of these services don’t hinder traffic congestion or price gouging,” said LaPointe on behalf of TransLink. AV technology and ride-share companies have the opportunity to provide ground-breaking new services to fill a gap where the government cannot. All it needs is for all parties to get along.

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