S1E27: Autonomous Vehicles Colorado (AvCo)

Oct 28, 2021

Andy Keeton

VP Global Strategy

Between the Lines S1E127: Autonomous Vehicles Colorado (AvCo)

with Tyler Svitak


Why will Autonomous Vehicles Colorado (AvCo) help save the planet?

On this week's episode of Between the Lines, we chat with Tyler Svitak. Tyler is the Executive Director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, the first and largest statewide coalition of public, private, academic, and research organizations committed to advancing smart cities initiatives.

Tyler has built his career solving problems at the intersection of technology and urbanism and has held strategic roles advancing electric, connected, and automated mobility initiatives at the City and County of Denver, Colorado Department of Transportation, and American Lung Association. Now at the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, he has been leading the Alliance’s role in AvCo, the nation’s largest electric, automated transit service aimed at improving public transit.

And check out Tyler's favourite commuting song on our exclusive commuter playlists on Spotify!

-Float On, Phil Good


Episode Transcript

-(Intro) Commutifi presents Between the Lines, with Andy Keeton. Each week we explore the challenging issues transportation demand management professionals face on their journey to transition commuters, from driving alone to more sustainable, shared and active commuting habits. Be sure to subscribe to hear next week's episode and check out our exclusive commuter playlist on Spotify. This is Between the Lines, with Andy Keeton.

-(Andy Keeton) Hi, everyone and welcome aboard to this week's Between the Lines podcast. Today, I'm joined by Tyler Svitak. Tyler is the Executive Director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, which is the first and largest state-wide coalition of public, private, academic and research organizations, committed to advancing smart cities energies. That's a lot. We'll get into it. And Tyler has build his career selling products at the intersectional technology and urbanism. Has held strategic roles, advancing electric, connected and automated mobility initiatives at the City and County of Denver, Colorado Department of Transportation and the American Lung Association, And now at the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance he has been leading the Alliance's role in AVCO or Autonomous Vehicles Colorado, which is the nation's largest electric, automated transit service, and at improving transit. And that's actually what we're talking about. But before getting into that, thanks for joining me today, Tyler.

-(Tyler Svitak) Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Andy. This is my first podcast, so I'm really excited.

-(Andy Keeton) And we're actually, for those of you not watching, we are joined by Tyler in his office in Downtown Denver. So you might hear some background noise. But hey, this is. We're back. You know? We are not at home. We can actually have things going on. So we're excited to see you in an actual office. It's pretty exciting. So today we're talking about why Autonomous Vehicles Colorado or AvCO, this program can run wide by the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance. Why this will help save the planet? And I think this is a really interesting conversation, because we talked with Lauren Isaac of EasyMile several episodes ago, who is a partner of yours at one of these projects. And actually last episode we talked with Marie-France Laurin, who is with StanTec, who also I believe is a partner of yours. And we talked about Smart Cities Vehicles. So this is perfectly relevant. I think this is going to be a good conversation. But for those who are listeners, who haven't tuned into either of those two episodes, I think it was kind of level set here, and talk about what we're actually talking about. It's on these vehicles. So can you tell me Tyler, when we talk about vehicle automation in this context, what are we talking about? Is this individually owned autonomous vehicles or shared? What does this look like to users?

-(Tyler Svitak) Yeah, the term autonomous vehicles is relatively broad. But you can it bring it down by what we call levels of autonomy, from zero to five. And zero is basically where, you know, the human does everything. And five is this future world where in any condition, in any weather, in any road, the control of driving is handed over to an automated driving system. Okay? So what we are talking about here, a highly automated driving system, this is level four and level five, where the driver has no responsibility for what happens on the road. It's all handed to an automated driving system. And it can be shared, like we have at AvCO, or it can be individually owned. But the vehicle is doing the driving, not the human being.

-(Andy Keeton) Interesting. And I think one of the maybe the keys to here, at least with the vehicles that are being used in the pilot you're working on, is that these are also electric. Is that right? And what is the benefit of having this autonomous electric vehicle?

-(Tyler Svitak) They are, yeah. So we are using what I call EasyTen, EasyMile shuttles. They are a hundred percent electric. They are also level four automated. And, for the most part, the autonomous vehicle industry is being driven by electric drivetrains. Because electric drivetrains, yes they have environmental benefits, but primarily they have tremendous cost benefits. Electricity is much cheaper than fuel. And the maintenance requirement of electric vehicles are much lower. So automation is primarily driven by the idea that, if you remove the driver, the business case for providing transportation becomes a whole lot easier. If you combine electric and automated, it becomes an even stronger business case. And that's what we are hoping to prove in AvCO.

-(Andy Keeton) And I like this because, you know, we talk a lot about different solutions in transportation demand management, TDM. And, you know, certainly something like an electric autonomous, you know, shared vehicle fits squarely, and that's why we come back to almost every episode. Yesterday's environmental benefits. But there's always, always cost benefits as well, which is great to see. One thing additionally, I think, that comes out of this is, and I quote you on something that, you know, you sent me earlier before we got on the podcast, which is that these types of vehicles can help automatically increase access, and radically transform the transportation system. You tell me a little bit more about, you know, what you mean by that.

-(Tyler Svitak) Absolutely. Yeah. So, again. In my opinion, in the opinion of, I think, the broader transportation industry right now, one of the biggest barriers to providing better transportation and getting more people to where they need to go, and ways where they need to go faster and safer, cost is the primary barrier to additional access. And I think that with this project, and with automation in general, if you can remove the driver, at least from certain circumstances, right, you can remove the largest cost associated with transportation. And if you can electrify the drivetrain at the same time, you can cut, you know, the cost of mobility by 80 percent or more. And if you can do that, then you can provide more transportation to more people through a transit type of environment where not everyone has to go on a car, and have the cost associated with owning and sharing and maintaining their own vehicle. You can have the shared mobility ecosystem, where you have new modes of transportation. Maybe you have an automated shuttle that takes you from your home to the transit station. And then, you know, the transit system takes you where you need to go. You get off, you ride, you know, the scooter to work or wherever. Also, I think that if you don't have to pay attention while you are driving to work, there are tremendous land use and zoning implications to where people would choose to live if, you know, transportation is not much of a barrier or a cost. So, you know, lots of people are opinionated about how this could transform cities, and it very much will. I don't think anyone's really settled on how it will, but it certainly has the opportunity if we use it right to increase access to transportation.

-(Andy Keeton) I think that's really interesting. I hadn't really thought about the zoning implications. So this is like a completely other conversation. Maybe I'll have you back, have another guest on the talk at that at some point. But let's tide in a bit into the, you know, what you are actually doing. So, Autonomous Vehicles Colorado or AvCO is a program, you know, led by the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance. And you have projects maybe going on across the state of Colorado. Can you tell me a little bit what is AvCO? What are your goals? And maybe then we can get into some of the actual projects that you're doing.

-(Tyler Svitak) Absolutely. About two years ago, you know, as you mentioned, I spent most of my career in the smart mobility space trying to bring new technologies from the private sector to benefit the public. And in this case, about two years ago, I sat down with Lauren Isaac, the EasyMile, and said: Look, autonomous electric shuttles they've been tested in piloting all over the world, right? But they've never been scaled, and they've never been integrated into a real transit service that can, in theory, change people's transportation behaviour and not just be a one of pilot or a demic, right? So we set off on this mission to identify use cases across the state of Colorado, hear what their home is, that can demonstrate what our real fleet base, use cases in transit service look like in an automated, on public roads, in mixed traffic type of thing. And we identified three use cases that we thought we can prove. And then we have to go out and find the partners in order to, you know, scope this and develop it, find funding and do all of that. You know, three use cases that we found. One is, you know, campus circulator environments like a university where, you know, you've got student housing maybe. You've got an athletic complex, and maybe you even have a city, which is in the case of Golden that you want to connect in like a two to three mile area. Another use case is first and last mile. Giving people to and from transit stations, liberal stations and much employer campuses. So have another use case and another city that we test that use case. And then finally downtown environments where, think of like the 16th Street MallRide, right? Similar type of use case where people hop on and off, fairly frequent, bus rapid transit type of model, and free and public transit service, so anyone can hop on and off whenever they want. And that's what we set off to do. I think if we can do that we can also educate the industry about what it takes to overcome barriers, not on the technology just but insurance, and public perception, and all of these other barriers that no one's tested because we haven't done it at the scale that we're hoping to do that. And, you know, we can also tract a lot of companies here to this innovation ecosystem in Colorado that we want to showcase. So those are really the three goals. You know, scale, test it at scale and in different use cases. Educate the industry. And attract talent.

-(Andy Keeton) I love it. And I love to see that this is actually happening. You know, I know we talk a lot about autonomous vehicles that, you know, this future thing that at some point will exist and here we go. We're actually seeing this in, you know, the real world. Can we talk a little bit more about the project in Golden, because that one recently launched, is that right? And I want. It's actually out there, happening right now as we speak. How is that going?

-(Tyler Svitak) Yeah. So, AVCO is kind of the program and there are three projects within it. And the first one, called the Mines Rover, launched in August with the Colorado School of Mines and the City of Golden. And it's actually the largest of the three projects, in terms of the number of shuttles we have out there in connecting service area. And we're really excited. I mean, we are still ramping up in terms of the number of shuttles we have there. But we hope to have nine shuttles with seven in service that will connect some student housing, about a mile and a half from campus with the main campus. Will connect the entire campus towards itself. The athletic complex and the Clear Creek, which is a recreation area. And really importantly, it will connect the university more closely with the city. That's currently about a mile away from campus. And so, right now, we hope to have seven shuttles in service. Right now I believe we have five. Working to get two more into service here, and when we do it'll be the single largest deployment of this type of technology on public roads and this traffic.

-(Andy Keeton) I wonder how people are reacting to this. Because, you know, I feel we've all seen various news reports of, you know, accidents happening and texting on autonomous vehicles and, you know, we can argue about if there are, you know, whether that actually means they are not safe or they are just, you know, there's always going to be accidents. But people actually getting on these, are they excited about it? I mean, I know. A stand institution primarily. So I'm guessing, you know, students are pretty going whole about the future of technology. But what is the perception? What are people actually thinking when they see these vehicles going around?

-(Tyler Svitak) It's a good question. And we've been doing a lot of interviews with people to try and capture those perceptions. But just for, you know, the listeners. These new shuttles, you know, have no. Are right pedalled. They have, you know, no traditional vehicle elements inside of them. And they've just got six seats that are facing towards each other with the computer screen in the middle. And they also do have what's called the Customer Service Ambassador. So this is a human being. It's actually a Mine student that's being paid and has essentially an iPad that if they need to they could take control of the shuttle, if there's a car. So, now that you have that vision, seeing these driving around the street, they are also very slow, and so they are very noticeable. They go a maximum of 12 miles per hour. And so you get a lot of looks, right? From drivers, from pedestrians, from cyclists. And so there's a lot of curiosity. I think, now that they've been on the road for almost two months or about two months now, we're starting to also see some healthy skepticism about the slow-moving vehicle part of things, right? Cars get stuck behind them. They get upset and impatient. And they question how valuable the service really is. And so this type of Lovin laboratory environment, we are learning about what people will tolerate and people get upset about. These are areas where people should be driving really slow anyways, and generally drive too fast. So we are all on the same page with the city and Mines, the School of Mines. This is still a super valuable service. You know, students are stoked. They're engineering students and we're actually hiring them to learn the technology, and be ambassadors, and talk about the technology, which represents the future. So, for the most part, it's all been really positive. And we hope to hear more feedback from the community.

-(Andy Keeton) That's. I mean, this is why this is such an important project. This, you know, program that's going on. Because. Yeah. I mean, I guess it makes perfect sense. I can imagine a driver getting stuck behind one of these slow moving vehicles. Maybe even a bike, you know. Someone is normally biking a little bit faster and maybe they feel like it's not actually providing value. I love the idea, though. This like secondary benefit of actually we're slowing down traffic, and that should be going slow anyway. That's really cool. So besides that, besides slowing down traffic, you know, what benefits are people seeing? Like what are the riders themselves, what are they saying? Or is this something that's actually helping them, you know, day to day? Are there things that they're, is it just kind of like a cool novelty? Or they're actually like hey, I see this as a future thing. This is great.

-(Tyler Svitak) It's a really good question. Our goal is for them to not see it as a novelty and to see it as a real transportation service that they use. And, you know, the reviews are still coming in, right? We're just now getting feedback from students. We're doing some social media campaigns. And it's a mixed bag so far, right? There are students that very much want to use the service even though it doesn't get them there, you know, four times as fast as maybe it would walking or biking. It gets them there faster, a little bit faster, and they don't have to walk, which is an awesome benefit that we've heard from, you know, people with disabilities. Each one of these shuttles has ADA accessibility and ADA ramp. And we're putting some ADA tie-downs as well to secure the wheelchairs. And so that community has been super supportive that, you know, a vehicle manufacturer took their, you know, situation in mind as they designed this. And so there's lots of situations where those people are using these shuttles and getting around much more ably than they could without it. We've also seen really good weather so far, right? And when it gets cold or rainy or snowy, we expect students to use the shuttles more and more. And we don't quite have ridership numbers. We're waiting on an API to get finalized to start sharing that data. And we'll really get to dive into how many people are using it. How often. How full are the shuttles. And all of that data that we're excited to discover.

-(Andy Keeton) Yeah, that'll be really exciting. We'll certainly follow along, and I'm sure we'll have a follow-up episode at some point to talk about how did these go particularly, not just this one but the other two that you mentioned throughout the Denver area as well. Are these gonna be operating during, if it's snowing and raining, is there any weather limitation that will shut them down?

-(Tyler Svitak) There are limitations, but they actually do operate well in adverse weather. EasyMile has even done deployments in Minnesota and testing in the Arctic circle. So it's not the colder the snow that slows them down necessarily. However, if there's too much snow and it accumulates too fast, it changes the environment around the shuttle. And the shuttle uses that environment to know where it is. So if it changes too much it may stop. So really large amounts of snow, or if it's raining or snowing too hard, or the density of the precipitation in front of the sensors is determined as an obstacle. And so in that case they may have to suspend service as well. But if it's just snow on the ground, or a light snow or a light rain, the vehicles operate really well and actually handle good in snow with the battery being low to the center of gravity. And, you know, instead of a heavy engine being right up front or right behind.

-(Andy Keeton) Sure. That makes sense. And I think, once again, another benefit of actually having this out in the real world, we can see what, you know, how often is that these are not able to operate. And I think from what it sounds like pretty infrequently, even in a place like Golden, Colorado where we could expect, you know, big snows every once in a while that doesn't, you know. I feel like this is going to be pretty consistent for transportation. And we're on the cutting edge, so we can, you know, I'm sure the team at EasyMile will be learning from this as well to improve their technology over time. So one of the other things I think is really interesting about this is that it's, like you mentioned, it's one of the first programs that's really looking at scaling autonomous vehicles in a, you know, shared sense here in a real world environment where people are actually using it. Not like in a, you know, pilot kind of thing where you have particular people who are chosen to be riders, but they're actually just regular people who choose to get on the vehicle. Why is this important? You know, and why do we need. First of all, do we need more of these programs? I'm assuming you'll say yes. And why, you know, why is it important that they happen?

-(Tyler Svitak) For so many reasons. I think that AvCO is really important. Because even if the technology were 100 percent ready today, and there were, you know, multiple models out there that could scale commercially safely, there are a lot of other barriers preventing this type of technology from entering the market. And we designed this program to try and test those and learn from them and overcome them, so that we can show the industry how to do this, right? The number of partners that it required to bring this project over the course of two years to market is pretty substantial. We had to get approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado State Patrol. So there's a whole regulatory environment that we had to navigate. There's a huge element of uncertainty around how people will perceive autonomous vehicles when they have the chance to engage with them. And personally, I think that other partners in the project would agree with me though. I think there is a terrible misperception out there right now about what an autonomous vehicle is, with the mis-marketing that some companies have done around these low levels of automation, where there's an unclear line between when the driver is responsible and when the driver is not. This is a very clear, there is no responsibility for someone that gets on this shuttle, right? It's all out of their hands. And it's a shared model. You know, I think there are a lot of the data out there that suggests that autonomous vehicles not deployed in a shared fashion could greatly disrupt our transportation system. If people have, for example, their own Teslas and they're driving around doing errands for them or, you know, without anyone in them it's going to cause havoc on our limited roadway space. And so the model, the most important thing in my opinion that this is doing is changing the perception of what an autonomous vehicle is, and how it's used and how it's integrated with other systems, as opposed to everyone owning their own, which could cause more issues than good.

-(Andy Keeton) Yeah, no. I 100 percent agree. And we had that conversation as well with Marie-France Laurin last week on the podcast about, you know, why it's important to have a shared autonomous, and how actually shared autonomous vehicles are a solution towards taking people out of their own vehicles versus, you know, personally owned autonomous vehicles may make it worse. So I agree a 100 percent. I think this is good to get this out there, so people in Colorado and as more programs come around the country in the world, people globally can start to see what an actual autonomous vehicle is, and feel comfortable with it and understand it. And then hopefully start adopting it moving forward. I love this project in this program. I am super pumped that you all are doing it, and doing it in Colorado. And I'm excited to actually go try it myself. I'm gonna for sure do that. I hope it's open to me. I'm not a student of the School of Mines, but that's my plan. I'm gonna go test it out, or maybe when the one in Greenwood village opens or Colorado springs. They sound really interesting. I haven't been on an autonomous vehicle yet somehow. And maybe this will be the first one.

-(Tyler Svitak) Yeah. Just to clarify. They are open to anyone. So, you know, you can go and jump on.

-(Andy Keeton) Perfect. So anyone listening, the next time you have a trip to Colorado, or if you live in Colorado, take a detour up from Denver into Golden, it's beautiful anyway, and then hop on one of these vehicles. I mean, it's a win-win. So Tyler, you know, we're at the end of our time here. But, you know, we want to just kind of summarize everything. We've talked a lot about about, you know, a lot of different things. But just kind of honing in on that message, can you tell us a little bit, in a few sentences, you know, why will Autonomous Vehicles Colorado or AvCO particularly, this program that you're running, why will that help save the planet?

-(Tyler Svitak) AvCO is demonstrating in a real world environment the technologies that have the potential to help save the planet, and to help radically transform our transportation system for the better. They don't inherently save the world though. And they have to be proven. And there are a lot of barriers to scaling these technologies. And we've designed AvCO in a way that hopefully tests and challenges those barriers, and finds ways to overcome them so we can accelerate the introduction of these technologies in a way that benefits people, and learns from people as well.

-(Andy Keeton) Really well said. Like I said, I'm really excited to see where this goes. I will certainly be following up. And this is a great time for me to, you know, plug the podcast again and plug for everyone who's listening to this one to subscribe to our email list. You can find, you can do that at betweenthelines.io, because we'll send out more information each week about our conversation so you can dive more into AvCO, learn a little bit more about it, learn a little bit more about the programs and projects that you're running over at Colorado Smart Cities Alliance. So make sure you subscribe. Give us a like and a follow in a rating wherever you listen to the podcast. And definitely check out the video as well. It's a beautiful day behind Tyler there in Downtown Denver. So you're missing out on that if you're not watching us. All of that, once again, found at betweenthelines.io. So we have our final question for you, Tyler. For those of us who, you know, listen every week, you know what I'm about to ask. But we're building this music playlist with songs from our guests. So for those of us who have to commute a long way we have something to listen to. Would you like to add anything? And if so, what is it?

-(Tyler Svitak) Yeah. I've been jamming to a remake of Modest Mouse - Float On by Feel Good. It's, I mean, this song starts right with like running into a cop car and a lot of bad things that happen to him. And I guess personally in my career i run into a lot of barriers and hard times. And just remembering that we're all gonna float on and be just fine, it's a good song to rock out to on my way to work.

-(Andy Keeton) I love that. Yeah, I bet a lot of us in the transportation industry, you know, need that mantra. Let's just keep going, you know, overcome those bears. I love it. We'll add it in. Check out the podcast or check out the playlist on Spotify. You can find it by, you know, once again, going to betweenthelines.io or searching up on Spotify for the Commutifi Between the Lines playlist. Tyler, it's been great having you on. I'm really excited to see where AvCO goes, really excited to see these programs continue to grow. Thanks for taking the time to be on.

-(Tyler Svitak) Thanks for having me.

-(Outro): Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of Between the Lines with Andy Keeton. Be sure to subscribe to hear next week's episode, and check out our exclusive commuter playlist on Spotify.

Better commuting starts here.

Better commuting starts here.

Better commuting starts here.