$500K Federal Grant to Coordinate Fleets of Self-Driving Shuttles

By Melanie Arter | February 17, 2015 | 6:06 PM EST

Britain's Business Secretary Vince Cable, second left, tries out a prototype driverless car called a Meridian shuttle during a launch event for the media near the O2 Arena in London, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Britain has begun testing driverless cars in four cities, launching the first official trials ahead of a series of planned rule reviews to accommodate the new technology. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

(CNSNews.com) - The National Science Foundation has awarded $500,000 in taxpayer funds to Stanford University to develop “models and control methods to coordinate fleets of self-driving vehicles in future transportation networks.”

Autonomous mobility-on-demand systems “represent a transformative, rapidly developing mode of transportation where electric, self-driving shuttles transport urban passengers and provide a mobility option to people unable or unwilling to drive,” the grant abstract stated.

“The results of this project will benefit the economy by fostering clean and efficient future transportation systems and addressing 21st century mobility needs,” it said.”More broadly, this research is applicable to a large class of robotic coordination problems and will positively impact several critical sectors including automated supply chains and logistics and national security.”

“A self-driving shuttle is simply a shuttle where there is no driver. It is a vehicle that drives by itself,” Marco Pavone, principal investigator for the grant, told CNSNews.com.

The project “advances scientific knowledge on the modeling, analysis, and control of robotic networks consisting of unmanned vehicles autonomously operating in a coordinated fashion to fulfill service requests such as the transportation of people or goods,” the grant stated.

“To work efficiently, such systems must overcome allocation and scheduling challenges that, in practice, can create backups, unacceptable wait times, and detrimental cascade effects,” it added.

CNSNews.com asked Pavone to explain what the grant was referring to when it by “allocation and scheduling challenges” that “create backups” and “unacceptable wait times.”

Pavone said there is a “dispatching system for autonomous shuttles, and the issue is if you do not dispatch the shuttles correctly, the customers that are waiting for an autonomous shuttle are going to wait excessively long time.”

When asked who would be responsible for the allocation and scheduling of shuttles, Pavone said, “It will be centralized, so envision the systems as being implemented by towns, cities, public authorities.”

CNSNews.com asked Pavone, “Why is the development of self-driving vehicles important for future transportation?”

Pavone cited two reasons. “One is to provide the mobility for those cases where cabs are usually not a good solution,” for example when you have to travel a mile home.

“You take the Metro. You arrive at the station, and then you are one mile away from your house. Those are usually trips that cab drivers do not like to drive, because they don’t make much profit,” Pavone said.

“The idea would be to use these autonomous shuttles for those short trips,” he said, “or for trips, for example, within a gated community like a retirement community.”

“Second - and this is a little bit more futuristic - the idea is that by centrally controlling all these shuttles, you might route the shuttles intelligently throughout the city, thereby reducing congestion,” Pavone added.

“And here the idea is that, according to a United Nations report, in the next 30 years, the number of people living in urban environment, in cities, is going to double, but the size of the road is not going to increase, because we already overbuilt our cities. So either we reduce the number of trips, so we tell people not to move around, or we find a way to shuttle people from different points, shuttle people in the city in a way that minimizes congestion,” he said.

According to a July 2014 United Nations report, the percentage of the world’s population that live in urban areas is expected to increase from 54 percent today to 66 percent by 2050. “Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa,” the report said.

“The world’s urban population is expected to surpass six billion by 2045,” the 2014 revision of the ‘World Urbanization Prospects’ by the UN DESA’s Population Division said, with the largest urban growth taking place in India, China and Nigeria. Among the numerous challenges in meeting the needs of growing urban populations, the report cited transportation and infrastructure.

When asked to explain how self-driving shuttles would work, Pavone explained that it would be akin to Uber, the transportation network which uses private vehicles, in that you would request a shuttle by using an app, and it would tell you “how long you will be waiting, how long would your trip be, and when you will be arriving.”

It would also provide flexibility, Pavone said, and allow you to redirect it to a different location than you originally requested in the middle of the trip.

“So the idea is to provide a service that is as flexible as possible,” he said. The objective is to “design an approach that is aimed at maximizing the mobility experience of the user rather than maximizing the profit of a company.

“So we really try to understand what is the best possible service that we can provide” with a certain number of vehicles versus what a company would do which is optimizing the number of vehicles, Pavone said.

“Essentially optimizing social welfare and optimizing profits are not always aligned. For example, transportation is a case in point,” he said.

Funding for the project started on Feb. 1, 2015 and expires on Jan. 31, 2020.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced on Feb. 3, 2014 that it plans to move forward with plans to enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology for light vehicles. The technology would allow vehicles to “talk” to each other “and ultimately avoid many crashes altogether by exchanging basic safety data, such as speed and position, ten times per second,” NHTSA said.

"Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the life-saving achievements we've already seen with safety belts and air bags," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "By helping drivers avoid crashes, this technology will play a key role in improving the way people get where they need to go while ensuring that the U.S. remains the leader in the global automotive industry."

In a policy statement released on May 30, 2013, NHTSA said automated vehicles will reduce fuel consumption, thus leading to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

But as CNSNews.com previously reported, the downside to a government-mandated movement toward cars not controlled by the people riding in them is that such a transportation system would give the government at least the capability to exert increasing control over when, where, if--or for how much additional taxation--people are allowed to go places in individually owned vehicles. It could also give government the ability to track where people go and when.

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