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« Autonomous Vehicles Part II: What Lies Ahead | Main | From Macro to Micro: Improving the Healthcare Experience through the Design Process »

Autonomous Vehicles Part I: The Future Is Here

EZ10 self-driving shuttle in use, photo by Joe Pobiner © Gensler

There’s been a LOT of talk about autonomous vehicles recently. Every automaker is promising a self-driving car within the next few years, and every conference has several sessions dedicated to the consequences of this new technology. But did you know that autonomous technology is already here? (And has been for quite some time.)

Sure, industrial robots have been working on assembly lines for decades, but today’s robotic work-force includes free-roaming battery-operated “industrial work assistants” (IWA’s) that operate side-by-side with their human co-workers. Amazon and Wal-Mart have relied on IWA’s for years to perform many of the simple and repetitive tasks in their distribution centers.

Most modern hospitals rely on similar robotic co-workers to deliver meals, move equipment, and perform other routine tasks. These industrial and medical robots navigate via on-board cameras and sensors—no building modifications required.

Robots on the farm? You bet! Agriculture has been a perfect fit for autonomous technology, since many tasks involve repetitive off-road patterns. So take a closer look when you drive past that farm—that tractor may be driving itself.

So, it should come as no surprise that autonomous technology has been creeping into our passenger cars for the past decade. Today, new models from Acura to Volvo can sense obstacles in their path (“brake assist”), keep cars in their lane (“lane assist”), avoid blind spots (“side assist”), park themselves (“park assist”), even perform basic self-driving functions (“auto pilot”). The incremental addition of autonomous technology was all about safety, and most people gladly accepted these innovations that promised to make our daily drive safer.

And while fully-driverless cars are not yet common on our streets (yet), other applications already are.

Here Today: Autonomous Transit

In March 2017, I attended a Silicon Valley conference (2017 Redefining Mobility Summit) that addressed the opportunities and challenges facing the self-driving future.

Today, small self-driving shuttles are being tested across the globe and are gaining public acceptance. The shuttles are a little larger than full-size SUV’s and carry 12 passengers (six seated and six standing) for relatively short trips at speeds between 10 and 20 MPH. That may sound slow, but urban traffic may also move at this speed (or slower). These shuttles can also help close the first mile/last mile gap—getting people to and from other existing transit modes (such as light rail stations).

I rode on the EZ10 shuttle (by French manufacturer EasyMile). It has 4-wheel steering, doors on both sides, headlamps and taillamps on both ends, and has bi-directional motors that allow it to travel in either direction without turning. It operates in three different modes: 1) summoned by an app; 2) on-demand at a pre-determined location (a stop with a call button); or 3) automatically stopping at each pre-determined stop.

Riding on the EZ10 was, well, unremarkable and that’s the point. In place of the driver are multiple on-board sensors and guidance systems (GPS, radar, lidar, infrared, cameras)—it does not require any external infrastructure. EasyMile company representatives were so confident in their product that they would periodically walk in front of a moving EZ10 to demonstrate its ability to detect and react to unexpected obstacles. It stopped every time. Not a single close call.

These shuttles are real vehicles, currently being tested in Australia, China, Finland, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Switzerland. In the U.S., similar demonstrations are underway in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C., with more areas to come.

Being Tested Today: Self-Driving Trucks

While everyone talks about autonomous cars, the market for self-driving trucks and commercial delivery vehicles is already being deployed.

On the small scale, Amazon is testing small, wheelbarrow-size, autonomous robots in select markets in California and Virginia. These little “delivery-bots” bring food or products at the swipe of a smartphone app – a commercial application of the same IWA technology found in warehouses and hospitals. One manufacturer of delivery-bots is Starship Technologies, established by some of the founders of Skype.

OTTO Motors autonomous Anheuser-Busch truck, CC image courtesy Steve Jurvetson

On the larger end of the spectrum are autonomous semi-trucks. In 2016, Uber acquired OTTO Motors—maker of fully-autonomous industrial vehicles—and plans an on-demand delivery service fleet. Working with Anheuser-Busch, OTTO/Uber introduced this technology in October 2016 with an Anheuser-Busch truck that drove itself over 120 miles in Colorado on I-25 to deliver over 50,000 cans of beer. The test was a success (and not one drop of beer was spilled).

As you might expect, the US military is very interested in driverless trucks, especially for autonomous supply convoys in dangerous areas. And it has been proven that successful military deployment of new technology is often a precursor to widespread commercial and personal use (GPS and in-car satnav systems, for example).

I think of the story about New York City in the late 1700’s, when local critics speculated the City could never grow to more than 25,000 people because there would be no room for all the horses (and all their, um, “byproducts”). So how might we see self-driving vehicles on our streets and highways in the coming years? Read Part II, “Autonomous Vehicles Part II: What Lies Ahead.”

Joe Pobiner, FAICP, CNU-A, is a master planner and urban designer in Gensler's Dallas office. He specializes in applying responsible planning and urban design principles that strengthen the physical, natural, economic, and cultural frameworks of our rapidly urbanizing planet. Contact him at joe_pobiner@gensler.com.