Safety. Efficiency. Cost. Comfort. These are all familiar performance indicators within the realm of mobility. The private vehicles that we have known for the past eighty years typically score high on comfort, but are by nature less safe, less efficient, and costlier than most other modes of transportation. To mitigate these shortfalls of the private vehicle, complex infrastructural systems have been put in place all over the world, often at the severe expense of pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit. Enter: the autonomous vehicle…
Manufacturers of Autonomous Vehicles promise to improve upon all of the aforementioned indicators, in order to justify their continued or increased value in the transportation network. But what if our indicators are wrong? The shift from private vehicles to AV’s has created an opening for us to throw out the established metrics, and think about – really think about – how to define successful mobility.
Imagine if vehicles were tactile and engaging
Imagine if the success of a journey was measured by how many people you connected with along the way, the rising levels of happy-hormones in your body (dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin), or the benefits to your cardiovascular system. Imagine if ‘comfort’ was measured not just from the perspective of the vehicle’s passengers, but also from the perspective of other travelers, specifically those on foot and bike. Imagine if the success of the AV fleet was judged by its level of accessibility to low-income and limited-mobility populations. Imagine if vehicles were tactile and engaging, inviting you to touch, to sit, to listen, to smell. Imagine if safety, efficiency, and cost were just the lowest common denominators, not the primary ambition.
Change the metrics, and you change the results
This is not a utopian expectation. In the 1960’s, the City of Copenhagen started measuring the success of its streets by the volume of pedestrians; today they have one of the world’s best pedestrian networks. In 2008, New York City started measuring the ratio of public space to population density and income; today, more than sixty new plazas have been created in underserved neighborhoods.
The lesson? Change the metrics, and you change the results. If we are prepared to change the conversation around autonomous vehicles, they in turn may accomplish what their predecessors could not: to improve the holistic experience of travel for all people and across the entire multimodal network. What do our streets look like then? To begin with, we can take away a lot of the vehicular navigation objects that clutter intersections and sidewalks, or at the very least make them multi-functional. This naturally frees up space for e.g. trees, benches, or commercial activity – things that welcome people, not cars.
Designing adaptable street environments
We can consider paving systems that contribute to the street’s energy balance (e.g. via induction charging) and aesthetic qualities, all the while monitoring its own success in meeting the defined performance indicators. We can mitigate the physical separation of the road space (typically curbs). Space can be allocated by using less permanent and obtrusive measures, such as lights imbedded in the surfaces and sensor communication systems. This gives us the ability to scale roads on a short-term basis, prioritizing accessibility for people and activities that add to the overall street (and travel) experience.
These are just a few simple examples of the reality we could achieve. But in order to fully leverage the potential, many bright minds from a multitude of backgrounds must be brought together to complete the vision, starting by redefining success in mobility.