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In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis that has brought urban mobility to a near standstill, the MOVE America theme of “Mobility Reimagined” seemed more relevant than ever. Public and private operators face daunting challenges as cities slowly come back to life and have opportunities to rethink services that work better than traditional ones. Two of the roundtable discussions, one focused on autonomous services and the other on human-driven micro-transit, see fleet orchestration as critical to rebuilding new service models which are more flexible, efficient, and safe.

 

 

Case Study: Deploying Autonomous Shuttles in the U.S.

Moderated by Central Ohio Transit Authority’s Scott Belcher, this session focused on lessons learned and the future plans of autonomous shuttle service providers from Arizona to Florida and featured Cathy Colbath, Transit Manager for City of Peoria, Arizona; Joe Moye, CEO of autonomous service provider Beep; Scott Brandes, Florida State Senator and a leader in making Florida’s transportation regulations autonomous-friendly; and Raphael Gindrat, CEO of Fleet Orchestration Platform maker Bestmile.

 

Cathy Colbath gushed about Peoria’s autonomous shuttle pilot that carried passengers from a transit center to a vibrant entertainment district that includes the Seattle Mariners baseball team’s spring home. The “Roboride” pilot was a huge success, with rapid public adoption, but was cut short by the pandemic’s lockdowns. Joe Moye discussed how Beep (also operator of Roboride) started small with a self-operated service in Lake Nona, Florida, taking advantage of shuttles’ current capabilities in a fixed-route, controlled speed environment. The service was also a hit and unfortunately shuttered by the pandemic. But Beep was able to work with authorities in Jacksonville, Florida, which used the shuttles to transport Covid-19 tests to the Mayo Clinic for analysis.

 

The conversation quickly turned to the future, with Senator Brandes challenging cities to stop looking at public transport as a fixed system and start treating it as an evolving organism. Ridership is down globally, and he pointed out that the current model of 70 percent fixed-route to 30 percent on-demand should be reversed, as the public has shown through their adoption of ridehailing a clear preference for door-to-door rides. The Senator suggested that cities get out of the transit business altogether, citing bloated bureaucracies that distract cities from their core mission to improve citizens’ lives. Instead, cities could serve as brokers of mobility services, establishing requirements for access, affordability, convenience, and density and working only with providers that meet these requirements.

 

Bringing back ridership will be challenging, and all agreed that out of the box thinking will be needed as the shift to remote work will likely change traffic patterns. Looking at Beep’s experience, the panel discussed the use of flexible fleets that could transport passengers and packages or offer fixed-route services during peak hours and on-demand services off-peak—moving more people goods with fewer vehicles. Cathy Colbath had wanted to use Peoria’s shuttles to transport essential workers at the height of the pandemic but could not get regulatory approval to do so.

 

Scott Belcher then asked Raphael Gindrat if Bestmile’s technology could support this kind of flexible fleet management to enable more efficient on-demand services. Raphael pointed out that the technology is ready. Bestmile’s Fleet Orchestration Platform can field hundreds, or thousands of ride requests in real-time, with passenger service and vehicle utilization requirements set by operators and sending autonomous vehicles “missions” to pick up and drop off passengers or packages. It can also support multiple feels and services and pivot from on-demand to fixed-route services. However, autonomous vehicles are either not yet ready or not currently allowed to merge with mixed traffic in full-speed environments.

 

Roundtable: Implementing Demand Driven Flexible Fleets

Another session focused on similar issues with micro-transit, networks of human-driven shuttles that don’t have the limitations or restrictions of autonomous vehicles, and that can offer the shared services that promise to reduce traffic and emissions.

 

The panel was moderated by Bestmile’s Alvaro Ramis, who, prior to joining Bestmile was on the founding team of micro-transit provider MOIA and became head of new mobility projects for VW when it bought MOIA. Also on the panel were micro-transit veterans Dan Grossman and Kate Roberts. Dan was the CEO of Chariot and became the VP of Micro-transit at Ford when Ford acquired Chariot. Kate was Vice President of Markets at Chariot/Ford and responsible for successfully bringing the service to new markets.

 

The discussion began when Alvaro asked whether large automakers could make the transition to service providers—citing their abandonment of MOIA and Chariot soon after acquiring them. Dan pointed out that the companies historically create and sell innovative products that return immediate profits. Services like micro-transit that take time to build ridership and revenue require more patience than the carmakers had. Kate was in charge of driving adoption in new markets for Chariot/Ford and talked about the difficulty in changing consumer behavior. She reinforced the need for time and subsidies in the short-term.

 

The conversation shifted to the economic viability of micro-transit. Finding the right vehicle size is one key consideration—vehicles need to be large enough to comfortably accommodate multiple passengers. Every rider added increases revenue but also increases trip times for all passengers. Balancing vehicle capacity, ride times, and income is are challenges are critical service design challenges.

 

This challenge led to another discussion of a use case for fleet orchestration. Fleet orchestration platforms use algorithms to match supply with demand and intelligently match riders with vehicles and determine the most efficient routes while offering predictable pick-up and drop-off times.

 

The Future is Flexible

Both sessions called for a more flexible future. And both pointed out that the economics of transport extends beyond the farebox and the cost of service delivery. Beep’s Joe Moye talked about how the private sector, like the Lake Nona private community, stands to gain valuable real estate for development when subsidized transportation reduces the need for dedicated parking spaces valued at about $20,000 each. And Dan Grossman pointed out that cities and employers reap gains when commute times decrease—workers are more productive, and reduced traffic and emissions improve public health.

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