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15th of August 2018

Automotive



Can Waymo Self-Driving Cars Help Fix Phoenix's Public Transit?

What are autonomous vehicles for, anyway?

Those building the technology like to remind the public that self-driving cars are more than vehicles shuttling you around—that they’re a lifestyle revolution. Waymo, the Google self-driving spinoff and putative leader in the robo-car race, is currently testing that hypothesis in metro Phoenix, Arizona. Later this year, the company says will roll out a bonafide robotaxi service, wherein riders will be able to use an Uber-style app to order a driverless ride.

This—coupled with several partnerships the company has forged with other area companies—shows a big company in the midst of a giant experiment in 21st-century car ownership. Waymo launched an early rider-program, which has given hundreds of families access to Waymos in the hopes that they might ditch some of their own vehicles. It collaborated with Avis to learn about how to manage big vehicle fleets. Wayme is also dabbling in grocery delivery (see: an experiment with Walmart, and travel (see: a partnership with Element Hotel, to give business travelers access to Waymos). Its latest venture? Public transportation.

Today, Waymo announced a series of experiments with Valley Metro, the Phoenix-area agency that provided more than 65 million bus, light rail, and paratransit rides to residents last year. The first experiment will begin in August, when about 30 to 50 Valley Metro employees who live in Waymo’s east side service area will start regularly hopping aboard the company’s driverless Chrysler Pacificas, to travel between their homes and public transit stops. This is a first-mile, last-mile solution, a way for those who live or work just far away enough from a public transportation stop to get there easily.

The second experiment will begin about three months after the first, when Waymo opens up the service to the agency’s RiderChoice passengers. That program usually provides deeply discounted, on-demand taxi service to seniors and people with disabilities. When Valley Metro and Waymo roll out this program, those passengers can choose to get a driver-free vehicle instead.

As in any experiment, there’s a hypothesis. “We believe we can connect autonomous vehicles to public transit infrastructure,” says Rob Antoniak, Valley Metro’s chief operating officer. Plus, a ton of questions need: How will riders hail a driverless car? Will they be able to do it if they don’t have access to a smartphone, and Waymo’s special app? Where will the car pick them up? Will some riders with disabilities need help getting into the driverless cars? If they do, who will help them? Will people get impatient or annoyed if a driverless vehicle takes them to a nearby bus stop instead of straight to their destination?

Oh, and: Do public transit riders even want self-driving cars? Or will the whole thing just make them nervous?

Waymo said it couldn’t answer specific questions about how the pilot will operate. But that’s partly by design, says Valley Metro’s Antoniak. The project’s first phase, the months dedicated to transportation the agency’s employees, will be all about gathering info. “We’ve got professionals who are planners, engineers, accessibility professionals, mobility professionals, and we’ll ask them to look at all that,” he says. Their experiences will shape the second part of the project, the one with the RiderChoice passengers.

What is clear, Valley Metro says, is that autonomous vehicle developers like Waymo shouldn’t aim to replace public transit. Big buses and trains will always be more efficient at moving large numbers of people than six- or four-seater cars, no matter who’s at the wheel. Unlike other agencies, though, Valley Metro seems comfortable in betting that private tech companies can be good partners, not competitors. The agency says Waymo will share some data on its services, which it can use to provide its public transit services.

“We’re not trying to disrupt each others’ industries, we’re trying to complement,” says Antoniak. “We’re trying to leverage each others’ investments in this space, to make the best use of public infrastructure.”

Silicon Valley companies don’t have the best track record when it comes to complementing public transit. The now-Ford-owned van service Chariot once tussled with San Francisco over monopolizing public bus stops. Ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft are adding to cities’ congestion problems by pulling riders off of public transit and into smaller cars.

So it’s nice that Waymo is thinking now, at this early, proto-service phase, about how to collaborate with mass transit, and with riders with disabilities. (The company has had a relationship with the Arizona-based Federation for Blind Children since last fall.) “This is good to see,” says Bruce Schaller, a former New York City transportation official and transportation consultant. He notes that the first-mile, last-mile issue is a convenient area of focus: “Trips tend to be short, so the frequency can be high, and thus make it much more a no-hassle, keep-moving trip than waiting for a not-frequent bus for the last mile or two of a commute.” There are ways for autonomous vehicles to be good for cities, he says. They could be for everyone.

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