Anyone interested in the future of cities is paying close attention to the rapid development and proliferation of autonomous vehicle technology. Autonomous vehicles are poised to radically alter how people move around, redefining the entire concept of personal mobility, and even transforming the form and function of our cities.
The most immediate and dramatic impacts could be a reduction of collisions and improvements to safety. Beyond better driving, autonomous vehicles may also begin to reshape long-established transportation and land use patterns. While most cars today spend most of the time idle in parking spaces, autonomous vehicles could be used more efficiently, resulting in fewer vehicles overall, and much less land devoted to parking. Because autonomous vehicle technology can more easily accommodate shared trips and integrated route planning, autonomous vehicles could reduce the total number of trips taken on roads, allowing precious public right of way to be reallocated to other modes and uses.
If commuters in autonomous vehicles don’t have to focus on the road, their time can be devoted to other tasks, potentially boosting productivity, leisure time, and social interaction. If car ownership is no longer an economic necessity, thousands of dollars per year per household could be poured back into local economies. Freight transportation will be more efficient and less expensive, reducing the cost of many goods. Recognizing the transformative potential, the USDOT, National League of Cities, and many others are working to understand how to prepare and respond to autonomous vehicles and their impacts.
For all their promise, autonomous vehicles are just the beginning. The benefits of autonomous vehicles are ultimately constrained by both the technology and the platform used to deploy it. A true re-imagining of our urban environments and contemporary lifestyles requires us to look beyond autonomous vehicles. The next generation of transportation technology may transcend mobility altogether, reshaping how we interact with each other and the world around us.
Autonomous Platforms for Extended Distribution
The most forward thinkers are already looking beyond autonomous vehicles to the next disruptive revolution in mobility: autonomous pedestrians. Often conflated with walking people, the “pedestrian” terminology is an emergent colloquialism for what is in fact a highly complex machine system. Technically defined as autonomous Platforms for Extended Distribution (or PEDs for short), current generation autonomous pedestrian technology is already displaying incredible capabilities in navigating and engaging a wide range of physical environments.
Autonomous PED Modules
Autonomous PED modules are highly efficient and cost effective. Powered by renewable biofuels, autonomous PED modules produce far less greenhouse gases than traditional fossil-fuel powered vehicles. Autonomous pedestrians even compete favorably with electric vehicles, which require external sources of electricity (although current generation PED modules do still require several hours of recharge time per day, limiting continuous operation). With a compact shape, light weight, and efficient organic machine propulsion, autonomous pedestrians provide a revolutionary low-impact transport method that frees up vast economic resources devoted to traditional transportation costs while simultaneously promoting long term environmental health and sustainability.
Unlike virtually every other mobility system available, including autonomous vehicles, autonomous PED modules improve their reliability and longevity as use of the system increases. While traditional automobiles and autonomous vehicles both incur wear and tear over time, the range, speed, and durability of autonomous pedestrians increase in a relationship directly proportional to their use. The more autonomous PED networks are employed, the better they work, and the further they can travel. Finely tuned and carefully crafted design ensures that autonomous pedestrian modules remain operational several times longer than even the most durable automobiles.
Autonomous PED Conveyance Networks
Data networks provide a useful model for how to take advantage of technological innovation to continuously develop, implement, and overlay new infrastructure and network capabilities over time and across diverse geographies. Unfortunately, our traditional transportation networks are designed to be highly static, with generational time horizons, high cost, and highly inefficient use of physical space and resources. Part of the genius of autonomous pedestrian technology is that it disrupts these traditional transportation paradigms, enabling a more flexible, capable, and affordable approach to mobility. Communities that leverage the full potential of autonomous pedestrians are able to implement lean mobility networks that leapfrog current automobile highway focused systems to provide exponential capacity improvements at a fraction of the cost.
These networks can be constructed and operated as a parallel overlay to the streets that serve the autonomous automobile platform. These parallel connections are sometimes described as side Waypoints for Applied Local Kinetics, or sideWALKs for short. Years of research and beta testing have identified highly successful approaches to interface sideWALKs with other mobility networks, engaging and crossing roadways in prescribed ways according to simple but robust algorithms.
The sophistication of autonomous pedestrian technology allows it to utilize a multitude of smart sensors to aid navigation and locomotion. As a result, the infrastructure required to accommodate autonomous pedestrian transportation has much lower cost and much lower impact than infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. Because of the advanced pattern recognition capabilities of autonomous PED modules, paint alone is often sufficient to guide movement and safely interact with parallel mobility systems.
Point to Point Service
All urban transit systems are forced to grapple with the first mile/last mile challenge. In short, they must address how transit users get to a multitude of unique destinations from a particular transit route. There is always some gap between the transportation mode and destination that successful transit operations and development strategies seek to minimize. Even use of personal automobiles creates a gap, where automobile users must traverse from car storage locations to intended destinations. While autonomous vehicles present an opportunity to place passengers closer to their ultimate destination, they are still constrained to locations where physical roadway infrastructure exists. This is where autonomous pedestrian technology demonstrates its unique advancements. Autonomous PEDs are able to provide point to point service to virtually any location, both indoors and outdoors. For autonomous pedestrians, the first/last mile problem is no more. Furthermore, autonomous PED modules are not confined to engineered pathways or storage areas. They are designed and sized to conveniently travel directly to the building, person, room, public space or whatever other specific location is the ultimate destination.
Flexible and Adaptive Routing
Point to point service for autonomous pedestrians is greatly aided by another unique technological advancement. Virtually all autonomous PEDs provide features for flexible and adaptive routing. Autonomous pedestrians are able to observe, interpret and analyze a stunning variety of physical site conditions ranging from spaces as narrow as a few inches to wide expanses of undefined open space. A dynamic, intelligent navigation system helps to make route selection seamless and efficient, with integrated learning algorithms that improve and speed up routing over time for repeated paths.
Safety and Peer-to-Peer Calibration
Autonomous PED modules boast a strong safety record as well. While autonomous PED modules fare poorly when integrated directly into obsolete automobile conveyance networks, they demonstrate dramatic safety improvements over automobiles when operated in dedicated autonomous PED networks, including sideWALKs. In fact, the design and operation of autonomous modules makes it virtually impossible for fatal PED to PED collisions to occur.
With more than 32,000 traffic fatalities per year in the United States, the need to enhance safety is real and urgent. Rapid advancements in autonomous vehicle technology hold great promise in terms of safety, but also present unique challenges. For example, in situations where collisions are inevitable, autonomous vehicles must make life or death decisions about how to respond. Ultimately these decisions are ethical in nature, shaped by norms and principles imbued by vehicle designers. While life or death situations are much rarer for autonomous pedestrians, their advanced technology again enables them to respond with great nuance and adaptation. Each individual autonomous PED module has a uniquely crafted ethical decision matrix that responds to local data and custom analysis. The result is autonomous PED modules that constantly make decisions reflective of the surrounding environment and culture, vetted by real time peer-to-peer calibration.
When it comes to interacting with the surrounding environment, autonomous vehicle technology generally focuses on collision avoidance. In many ways, autonomous pedestrians flip this idea on its head. Autonomous pedestrian networks actually promote a “collision density” that is the hallmark of successful urban economies. While autonomous vehicles create a bubble or cocoon that isolates passengers from the surrounding environment and other travelers, autonomous pedestrians are explicitly designed to engage with each other. Groups of autonomous pedestrians automatically form local networks that enable peer-to-peer communication, data exchange, and decision-making. These capabilities transform mobility networks into local innovation clusters.
Peer-to-peer communication between autonomous PED modules is supplemented in many ways by the revolutionary suite of smart sensors integrated into each module. These sensors enable autonomous pedestrians to absorb and interpret subtle vibrations in the air around them, and re-project these vibrations in specific patterns that can be absorbed and parsed by other PED units. Autonomous pedestrians are also able to dissect variable wavelengths of light, and changes in the variable wavelengths of light, to create an applied reality mesh of surrounding phenomena that is used to guide navigation, communication, and internal analytics. Basic but effective airborne chemical detection, and a highly sensitive physio-electric response system integrated into the autonomous pedestrian flexi-shell round out the array of sensors that provide unprecedented information about local surroundings. These smart sensors are essential for autonomous pedestrian movement, communication, and data processing functions.
Miniaturized Data Kiosks
Data collection and environmental awareness capabilities alone place autonomous pedestrians at the bleeding edge of mobility technology, but the integration of these capabilities with other transformative technologies is what positions autonomous pedestrians to reshape our entire urban landscape. Many cities are in the process of deploying data kiosks as a way to directly connect information technology to mobility systems. With diverse information ranging from transit schedules to restaurant reservations, these kiosks supplement infrastructure systems with the entire online world of information.
Autonomous pedestrian technology is taking these initiatives to the next level. Most autonomous PED modules now incorporate miniaturized Smart City data kiosks that provide all of the capabilities of standard kiosks and more, but travel conveniently with each autonomous PED module, offering constant access and unique customization of information. Autonomous pedestrians are able to combine the entirety of online information and communication tools, universal access to this information, and powerful analytic and computational abilities to create a device that is much more than the sum of its parts. In many ways, autonomous PED modules take on a primary role of an emergent collective intelligence, while the impressive technology that drives mobility functions becomes secondary.
Mobility Networks as Social and Economic Networks
With a powerful combination of processing power, real-time sensor apparatuses, networking capabilities, and rapid decision-making algorithms, autonomous pedestrians are uniquely poised to transcend their role as mobility devices and become truly multi-function technology. Most notably, the communication and social networking roles of autonomous pedestrians are increasingly recognized as a core function of the technology platform. With this perspective, the traditional mobility infrastructure that communities rely upon to move everyone and everything from point a to b can be radically reimagined as an integrated network for communication, data exchange, and social interaction.
Forward-thinking communities have great potential to de-monopolize obsolete automobile vehicle movement as the dominant priority for streets, public spaces, and other shared infrastructure. By taking a more integrated and multi-function approach, smart cities can nourish nascent autonomous pedestrian technology, and simultaneously reap economic, social, and environmental benefits, in addition to the mobility advantages autonomous pedestrians provide. Following closely on the heels of autonomous vehicles, autonomous pedestrians may represent the future of mobility technology – a future that responds to the best of human potential, in a way that is both radically advanced and strangely familiar.