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Lyft: How Autonomous, Electric, & Shared Vehicles are the future

Lyft: How Autonomous, Electric, & Shared Vehicles are the future

Cities will be home to 80% of the world’s population by 2050, compared to the current urban share of 55%. It is a daunting prospect for those of us who live in metropolitan areas and who face huge amounts of traffic congestion and construction every day. Cities currently only cover 2% of the earth’s surface, though moving goods and people within, around, and between them is very complex.

Without effective tools and methods, city planners clearly can’t prepare for staggering urban growth. They need to adopt the “four ACES” of smart transportation technology – Autonomous, Connected, Electric and Shared.


In Episode 26 of the How AI Happens podcast, host Rob Stevenson talks with Sarah Barnes from Lyft’s Micro Mobility team. She is a geographer and city designer who specializes in transportation-related technology. She feels vehicles that are autonomous, electric, and shared (EVs and AVs) are crucial to the future of moving cities – including people, products, and materials.

Here are the key takeaways from Barnes about the intersection of public, private, and fleet transportation and technology in the years to come:

1. Cities seek automotive partners in autonomy and electrification – is your business up to the task?

For cities to succeed now and in the future, planners will have to work with automotive manufacturers and technology solution providers that share their priorities, including new strategies for environmental sustainability and reducing CO2 emissions. These changes are needed to improve safety for everyone on the roads, including drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Alternative vehicle revenue streams are needed to accommodate car sharing because manufacturers are unlikely to buy into drastic sales model changes. Building and maintaining the vehicles, charging infrastructure, and digital solutions to support autonomous, electric vehicles are critical steps toward meeting sustainability and safety goals.

It is a utopian view of urban transportation which may not be ideal for all companies. Automakers are very accustomed to selling and leasing cars and trucks, and not the kind of usage-based, utility-like pricing that industries like technology have evolved towards.

But General Motors invested $500 million in Lyft’s AV division six years ago, and some manufacturers are adopting feature subscription pricing models, so the winds of change are blowing.

2. Balance auto industry scalability and environmental sustainability

There is concern that most of the companies building and equipping autonomous vehicles these days are focused on scaling the number on the road. As drivers become accustomed to allowing their driverless cars to get them to work or other destinations, they won’t mind spending more time and fuel to get there.

Barnes described how for city planners, the best way to deter unnecessary driving is not to intervene in congested roadways. New highway lanes usually fill up quickly with cars from other routes. Toll roads often fail to reduce congestion, or to deliver worthwhile ROI to cities or drivers. Barnes says high-occupancy vehicles offer the greatest opportunities for reducing emissions and gridlock by moving more people per vehicle. But breaking solo driving habits is, and will likely always be challenging.

Driver assistance systems range from Level 1 (assistance like power assist braking, drivers are responsible for safe driving habits) to Level 5, Fully Automated (no driver attention or guidance required). Most AVs available in the market are Level 1 or 2 and there are only a few vehicle manufacturers – Mercedes Benz, Honda, and Tesla – that have Level 3 certified AVs in the marketplace. Level 4 is the next popular milestone. Tesla has an aggressive plan to reach level 5 and competitors are increasing their R&D spending.

AI-powered driver assistance systems encourage vehicle owners to drive 5,000 more miles per year on average than vehicles that aren’t equipped with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). If drivers are in their cars more and traveling further, it hinders government goals to reduce gridlock and attain their carbon footprint goals.

3. Don’t neglect those who can benefit from AVs most

It is important, says Barnes, to prioritize the needs of the elderly and those with physical or mental disabilities when designing, planning, and implementing the transportation systems of the future. Many AV vehicles and supporting infrastructure aren’t designed or built for people who don’t have the strength, senses, or understanding to make the most of driverless vehicles.

She strongly recommends that AV companies, city governments, and other organizations that support our evolving transportation systems prioritize the needs of those with disabilities or who need special accommodation. She feels doing so will go a long way towards winning the support of those who resist AVs due to safety concerns across the public and private sectors, and among individuals.


4. Cities should seek mass transit solutions, not just AVs

Barnes says most cities weren’t engineered for cars and trucks, let alone autonomous vehicles. She suggests that cities need to adopt flexible planning models for those that travel city streets by public transit, their electric or gas-powered vehicle, by bike or on foot.

Cities should find safe, eco-friendly, controlled ways to test AVs where they will be run when fully commissioned. They must partner with companies that share and understand their goals so they don’t end up in conflicts like Waymo and the State of California. Waymo wanted to keep its intellectual property secret, while the State wanted the company to disclose its AV programming and rulesets.

5. Move many citizens in many ways

Over the years cities have tried adding high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, toll roads, and now some are looking at adding AV lanes to reduce congestion. It is vital, says Barnes, that cities take a “greater good” approach to solving their most pressing transportation problems for all who share the road — however they use it, for whatever purpose. She advises that cities leave automotive engineering to the commercial sector until the time is right for strategic partnerships.

Accelerating AV adoption and trust

AVs – like many other applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning – offer great opportunities as catalysts of change, when designed, implemented, and managed effectively.

For cities, contracting with solution providers that understand how to solve problems with deep learning, computer vision, and other ACES-related automotive technology, is crucial. This is not just for the advancement of technology itself, but to increase buy-in, credibility, and investment from government entities.

Will the smart cities of the future resemble the driving utopia Barnes dreams of? Or will transportation congestion, emissions, and inefficiencies challenge us until 2050 and beyond? It’s up to all of us to solve.

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