It is important to acknowledge an emerging trend that is accelerating this country's implementation of a multimodal transportation network. The expansion of "transportation as a service" beyond urban areas to include suburbs and then, theoretically, to reach virtually every part of the country is becoming more common.
The lines between sharing, renting and owning vehicles are rapidly blurring due to ridesharing apps and services. When autonomous vehicles ultimately become ubiquitous, these lines may nearly vanish. Transportation will likely exist primarily as a service, which people will purchase as they need, wherever they are, based on their requirements for convenience, speed, comfort and cost. This service will likely exist in concert with many of our existing systems.
Traditionally, it has been easy to divide means of mobility into "shared/rented" versus individually "owned." Among the shared means have been rail systems, buses and other vehicles, airplanes and ferries, taxis and the like. People know that tax dollars, tickets or fees contribute to the availability and upkeep of these shared assets. In urban areas, where public and commercial transportation options are robust, it has long been common to see people commute and conduct their daily lives solely using these shared assets.
By contrast, in the less-populated suburbs and rural areas, people traditionally have "owned" their means of mobility. They've done this out of necessity: even if a bus were to stop nearby, it could not deliver them to the precise locations they'd want to visit. Thus, they were forced to absorb all the expenses of "owning" — loan payments, taxes, maintenance and fuel, and city parking fees — to support a vehicle that, statistically, might be in motion and providing value only about 5 percent of the time.
Autonomous Vehicles as a Service
How might this change in the future? Within our lifetimes, car ownership might drastically decrease among urban and suburban populations, and autonomous vehicles may become available as a publicly or privately provided service.
Picture a fleet of autonomous vehicles constantly driving around your city, using an optimization program that chooses the most efficient routes between fares to ensure the vehicles are occupied at least 95 percent of the time.
You need to go to work, so you use your phone to communicate with the fleet owner via an app, which uses the optimization program to route a driverless car to your door in a matter of minutes. You ride about a mile and a half to the nearest transit station, then step off and take commuter rail downtown. Your office is about a mile away from your downtown transit stop, so you use the same app to catch a driverless car to finish the trip.
Integration with Existing Systems
While this future may be a few years away, it is a feasible scenario that requires emerging technology to work with existing systems. Before we reach this point, public transportation agencies need to prepare for autonomous vehicle technology by readying themselves for integration.
The leaders of these public transportation agencies are particularly well-positioned to prepare their systems for integration with ridesharing services and other technologies, creating a seamless travel experience for the user. To start, these leaders can begin exploring technologies that can integrate information and payment methods between automated transportation and transit systems.
Public transportation organizations must expand beyond their traditional roles as system operators to become mobility managers who provide a suite of integrated solutions to the public through integration with autonomous vehicles, partnerships, tighter coordination, savvy use of technology and other skills.
The result would be "complete trips" rather than merely legs of a journey self-assembled by a traveler, resulting in a superior user experience and greater efficiency across the system.
The public's appetite for broader mobility options is increasing, and the technology needed to integrate those options is advancing rapidly. We must seize this historic opportunity to reshape our transportation system.
Jim Barbaresso is SVP and National Practice Leader, Intelligent Transportation Systems, HNTB Corporation.