Metro, News

Providence looks to develop automated public transit

Automated vehicles to connect Providence, Woonasquatucket River Corridor

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2018

In a new pilot program, Providence plans to use automated vehicle technology to fill gaps in the city’s public transportation. The program — The Transportation Innovation Partnership — looks to connect downtown Providence to the Woonasquatucket River Corridor. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation will begin the search for vendors later this spring, said Chief Public Affairs Officer at Rhode Island Department of Transportation Charles St. Martin.

The autonomous vehicle is a new self-driving technology employed by over 45 cities around the world, according to a report by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute. Municipalities have introduced the technology as a safer, more efficient alternative to human drivers. Cambridge, Massachusetts, unanimously voted to begin autonomous vehicle testing in early April — joining the list of cities utilizing various applications of the technology, which range from automated taxis to trains.

The RIDOT hopes that implementing a pilot program will help the city “plan properly for the future,” Martin said. The Woonasquatucket River Corridor will serve as the RIDOT’s place of testing because there is not currently a transit service that links the Olneyville and Valley neighborhoods. The two neighborhoods were once a manufacturing hot spot in the 18th century and have since become a “flourishing Arts and Innovation district,” according the program’s proposal.

The plan to use AV technology in Providence progressed at RIDOT’s international mini summit last April, which brought together experts from across the world to discuss the application of AV in their respective countries. The Transportation Innovation Partnership then organized an exposition with groups ranging from consultants to mobility firms in September 2017 to continue the conversation.

“When you’re planning your work 10 years out, not only do you have to look at today’s technologies and what’s available to us now, … but you also have to look at what is coming down the line that will have a significant impact on how we operate and how we do work” said RIDOT Program Development Assistant Director Christos Xenophontos, adding that AV could have some productivity benefits but its impact still remains a “large unknown.”

Xenophontos said he anticipates that the AV pilot program could “disrupt (the) existing workforce,” but also “create a lot of opportunities for new employment.”

Professor of Computer Science Michael Littman said he is shocked by how supportive the government has been to AV technology, adding that he initially expected the AV industry to have to “jump through regulatory hoops.”

“If (AV technology) really works, it will save lives,” Littman said. “These machines don’t get bored. They don’t get distracted. They don’t have to check their email.”

Although safety is a motivating factor in the move toward automated vehicles, there are still safety concerns with the current AV technology, Littman said. Recently, an Uber driver with a automated car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, and a driver was killed when his Tesla crashed into a highway barrier in California while in auto-driving mode.

Professor of Economics Matthew Turner said AV technology will “increase the capacity of the road network” and transform “the way that people use their cars.” If AV becomes more widespread and reduces the cost of travel, we should expect more driving “up to the point that roads are congested,” he added.

The TRIP initiative, according to Xenophontos, is looking more toward a “transit-oriented solution” that will complement the already existing RIPTA system.

The request for proposal process is expected to begin later this spring and will allow industries to propose their own creative solutions, Martin said.

“We took extreme pains to write the (request for proposal) in a way that is open to encourage as much competition as possible because we want to encourage vendors that could have an innovative solution that we might not have necessarily thought of to come forward and propose it,” Xenophontos said.

RIDOT plans to begin implementing ideas chosen from vendors’ applications as early as this fall, Martin said.