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Autonomy for all: Bringing autonomous microtransit to underserved communities

  • By Karsten Kutterer
  • agosto 31, 2023

We believe that autonomous microtransit can do more than ease transport needs in heavily populated areas. We can also ensure that autonomy serves people of all abilities and locations.

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Ever since the first self-driving car was unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair, autonomous vehicle (AV) technology has been evolving at a breathtaking pace. Many car manufacturers have recently developed hands-free highway driving systems, and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has even published the Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan to facilitate the integration of AVs into the transportation system.

But as autonomous transit becomes increasingly viable, it’s important to stay focused on the role we want it to play in the wider community. We believe that AVs can do more than ease transport needs in heavily populated areas by also ensuring that autonomy serves people of all abilities and locations.

Are we using autonomous microtransit where it’s needed?

The 2022 iteration of the Rural Transit Fact Book shows that just 0.2 percent of all driven trips involved the use of public transit in rural areas. In urban settings, this figure jumps to 8.8 percent. Reflecting the lack of public transit usage, only 4 percent of rural households don’t have access to a private vehicle, compared to 10 percent for urban households.

Thus, as we move further away from urban city centers, the reliance on public transport decreases. From this alone, you could easily conclude that urban areas should be a priority target for enhanced public transit infrastructure. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

The greater use of private vehicles in rural areas, suburban outskirts and areas of development is part of a cycle that starts when there are limited public transportation options. As personal car usage increases, city infrastructure develops in response, making it more difficult to invest in public transportation and infrastructure over private vehicle roads. And then the cycle continues. Without access to a wide range of vital transportation services, rural communities may face significant obstacles to daily life if they don’t turn to personal car ownership and have developed an infrastructure where conventional public transit modalities (e.g. subway) are unavailable.

Using autonomous vehicle microtransit, we hope to improve transportation availability across the board; but we can’t do it alone. To ensure that autonomous transit adequately serves all communities, here are three main concerns to keep in mind:

  • Communities with limited transportation options may have more to gain from on-demand AV services

  • Introducing AVs as first-mile and last-mile microtransit for underserved populations improves access to existing public transit, grocery shopping, medical care and other vital services

  • Since 15 percent of rural residents live with a disability, AV deployments must have vehicles designed with features like wheelchair accessibility

What happens when we concern ourselves with more inclusive transportation?

By using these concerns as the foundation of AV development, we place the betterment of the community above advancing technology for its own sake. This empowers us to counteract systemic restrictions on employment, education, healthcare, access to food and quality of life.

Further, this ensures that we develop our AV software to accommodate various weather conditions and to navigate effectively in a larger radius, both of which are critical to transit equity. Likewise, a focus on the community can help manufacturers to design vehicles that lend themselves to ride sharing and use by disabled riders, thereby optimizing transit efficiency. Our wheelchair-accessible vehicles are an excellent example, as their interior accommodates additional passengers and provides easy access for wheelchairs via an ADA-compliant wheelchair ramp.

Awareness of public need also enables us to better align our AV deployments with the infrastructure and budget constraints of both large and small municipalities. As a result, AV solutions can be adopted quickly and scaled as necessary to meet demand. By making these considerations the driving principles behind AV development, autonomous microtransit becomes well positioned to provide real-world benefits sooner and with greater effect.

How can we create AV solutions that provide autonomy for all?

The first step toward achieving equity in autonomous microtransit is collaboration. Each community has unique needs, which is why we approach each deployment with a clear plan on how to solve their problems with AV microtransit. A big part of that plan is leveraging the main advantage of autonomous vehicles: their outstanding ability to compensate for transportation gaps.

Since transit agencies know best the areas with limited transit options, we collaborate with them to identify underserved areas that would benefit most from AV microtransit. At the same time, we aim to comprehensively partner with local stakeholders to better understand community needs and promote long-term sustainability beyond individual projects.

Once the AV deployment is ready to launch, we help to educate the public about AVs and how to use our microtransit service. Effective programs potentially include awareness campaigns, working with local schools to discuss AV technology, upskilling and other promotional strategies.

Another factor in creating autonomy for all is working within the constraints of each city and town. Electric vehicles (EVs), for example, eliminate local emissions from AV microtransit, but they also carry the cost of installing charging stations throughout the area. This could push the cost of AV microtransit beyond the available budget or necessitate years of planning that delays solving underserved needs.

One solution to this issue is using AV technology on road-ready hybrid vehicles. In addition to fewer time and cost investments derived from additional infrastructure changes, this also paves the way for a future transition to fully electric AVs for public transport. Once the public becomes more accustomed to and reliant upon AV microtransit, the infrastructure for EVs can be comfortably implemented at a pace these municipalities can afford.

How May Mobility creates equity in AV microtransit

Right now, AV technology can primarily be found in areas of major urban and economic activity. This, combined with the greater use of public transportation in urban areas, means that AVs are most commonly found in highly populated city centers.

The prevalence of AV use among urban communities is certainly a step forward in promoting greener and healthier communities and can help to relieve overburdened roads. But we must remember that these areas generally have the most public transit options available to them. That’s why May Mobility is supporting underserved communities across the U.S. and beyond with AV microtransit services.

Our autonomous vehicles can seamlessly close public transportation gaps with on-demand first-mile and last-mile microtransit. By connecting rural, suburban and developmental areas to the wider transit system, we give them the same opportunities for travel and vital services as their inner-city peers. This cohesive approach to transit equity, combined with our vehicles’ spacious, wheelchair-accessible interiors, lays the groundwork of autonomy for all.

Daisy Wall

Daisy Wall is the director of government business at May Mobility and works closely with transit agencies, cities, Departments of Transportation and other public entities to build and execute on the vision for safe, sustainable, accessible and equitable transportation. Prior, she served as head of market expansion, transit for Uber.

Wall serves on the board of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA) and holds a master of philosophy in social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge. She has expert knowledge of AV policy and regulation, B2G relations, national business development, filling transportation gaps and AVs in mobility.

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