S1E7: Driverless Shuttles

Jun 3, 2021

Andy Keeton

VP Global Strategy

Between the Lines S1E7: Driverless Shuttles

with Lauren Isaac


Why will Driverless Shuttles help save the planet?

In Part 2 of our Between the Lines mini-series on the future of shuttles, we speak with Lauren Isaac, Director of Business Initiatives at EasyMile, about how driverless shared shuttles are the future commuting solution we all need...and already have - yes, driverless shuttles are available now!

And check out Lauren's favorite commuting songs on our exclusive commuter playlists on Spotify.

  • Fly Like an Eagle - Steve Miller Band

Episode transcript:

-(Voiceover) 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 thanks for coming on board today to between the lines. This episode we've got a really special guest with us. We're talking with Lauren Isaac. Lauren is the director of business initiatives at Easy Mile, a company specializing in autonomous vehicle technology and smart mobility solutions and prior to Easy Mile, Lauren worked at WSP where she was involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Lauren wrote a guide titled "driverless, driving towards driverless" a guide for government agencies regarding how local and regional governments should respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium and long term. In addition to that she also maintains the blog "driving towards driverless" and has presented on this topic at many industry conferences including a recent "TEDxTalk" and has been published in Forbes and the Chicago Tribune among other publications. So obviously an expert here in the autonomous field and we're really excited to have you on today Lauren and today, as you probably could expect, we're talking about driverless vehicles but specifically, we're talking about driverless shuttles and why they will save the planet. Lauren, thanks for being on.

-(Lauren Isaac) Thanks for having me Andy!

-(Andy Keeton) And let's just get started here with just the basic question. What is a driverless shuttle?

-(Lauren Isaac) Yeah. I was trying to think of the best way to answer that question. So I like to think of them as being bigger than a van but smaller than a bus because they really do come in a lot of shapes and forms, but I think what's worth considering is that most of the shuttles we see on roadways today are like for cutaways, but the driverless shuttle that Easy Mile first deployed which we call an Easy 10 is actually a custom-built vehicles custom designed to be a driverless shuttle. So it looks we've heard things like it looks like a toaster box. It's pretty rectangular our prior generations of them actually were bi-directional so they didn't have an obvious front or back. Right now actually our most recent one does have a very clear front but the vehicles have a very non-traditional interior where the passengers are sitting and facing each other. There is no driver's seat. There are no foot brakes there, there's no steering wheels all the things you'd expect in any vehicle are not there. However, we're also in the process of automating what we call the Easy Zeus which is afford cutaway shuttle so a more traditional looking vehicle that is also a driverless shuttle but what's exciting about it is that it's also an electric vehicle which are Easy Ten is too, but it's also complies with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards, which is another form but basically it complies with road rules today, so it doesn't have to get through any federal regulations as it stands.

-(Andy Keeton) That's so interesting. So I'm imagining anywhere from yeah, just like the typical kind of shuttle that you might see on the road but in an autonomous way to this futuristic toaster box looking thing that you would see and kind of these drawings of the future.

-(Lauren Isaac) Yeah.

-(Andy Keeton) That makes sense and that's exciting. I love the idea of being able to not have to waste space for driver seats, the pedals and [inaudible] vehicule.

-(Lauren Isaac) It also throws people off, but yes, why bother using that space for driver if there is no driver.

-(Andy Keeton) But it's true. There's you know when you get into like a subway car or something, there's not a driver in the car. It's you just get in and there's just like that but on a little smaller basis, I think it's great. It makes sense, cool. So what is the timeline here? So we're sitting here thinking is this today I can get into one of these vehicles and go and take this wherever I want or is it a year from now, ten years from now. Where when are we going to see these on the road and actually be able to use them as TDM professionals as a TBM solution as well?

-(Lauren Isaac) Yeah, so I'm happy to say that a TDM professional or really anyone could actually get into one of our driverless shuttles today. Yes, they're operating on public roads all over the world, our Easy Ten has actually been deployed literally in over thirty countries. And they're in the United States, we've been in I believe over twenty states. So in a variety of different use cases, that being said, I feel like it's appropriate to set expectations. Our focus at Easy Mile is on the low-speed technology. We can go, we can provide a driverless solution but in very specific what's called operational design domains, ODD's is also another thing that it's been called and the idea is that we can go driverless we can be driverless in a very specific environment so it could be a closed campus like a corporate campus or University or it could be on public roads. I mean first and last mile solution is a great use case for us. The idea is that these vehicles are operating under fifteen miles an hour, which a lot of people go got that's really slow. "What are you going to do with that?" But the reality is that there are a lot of use cases where that makes a lot of sense if you look even at public transit buses, their average speed is generally under twenty miles an hour anyway, so when you think about any kind of Campus environment, you think of circulators any kind of driverless shuttles, circulators likely can be replaced with driverless shuttle. There are going to be some limitations with weather so we can't operate with a really heavy snowfall or really heavy rainfall and that's just because the sensors might start to see the heavy snowflakes as obstacles, but the reality is we as drivers also have a limit on what we can see so you can assume if a human can't drive in a certain situation, driverless vehicle probably can't either. So anyway, that's where we are at today, different companies are focusing on different use cases like you have chucking companies that are looking at the Long Haul they're really interested in removing the driver for higher speeds on the highways and in some cases that's an easier environment because it's more predictable. But and then you see like Waymo they're operating in a place like Phoenix with really great weather and pretty flat predictable roadways. And so they've started their so they have a limited environment that's slightly different than ours, but it's still a limited environment. So then the question is when are we going to see driverless vehicles at scale everywhere? I call it the Utopia where literally almost every vehicle gets replaced and you have no human drivers to worry about at all and some people say it's going to be another ten years and some people say twenty years. Some people say that will never happen and that we actually will always be limited to very specific operational design domains they'll just keep getting more and more complex, but we will never get all of the edge cases. So it will be interesting but I expect we're going to see much more significant widespread use of autonomous vehicles in the next ten years.

-(Andy Keeton) Exciting. I personally am a big fan of autonomous vehicles, I think they're very exciting and interesting. -(Lauren Isaac) Me too! I mean clearly you, you're very much in favor of this and we're excited to be talking with you because I mean, you've got your finger on the pulse here and what I really like about the idea of the autonomous or the driverless shuttles and like specifically is you do have a lot of use cases where they were I can imagine in a hospital campus or a university certainly or even some of these bigger business campuses right now. It sounds like, you know, you could start getting these to replace your circulator shuttles. It's really pretty interesting and certainly I don't think a lot of people lesser think that this technology is here. They think "sometime in the future will be good", so that's cool. So we're going to get into the key questions I think a lot of people have around safety and things like that and a little bit, let's start with some of the really important benefits of driverless vehicles and driverless shuttles specifically, and I think that one of the big things I think of is a decrease in emissions, and decrease in congestion when you start using these autonomous vehicles. I know a lot of people have been talking about well if you have an autonomous vehicle, it's still driving around, it's still using the same amount of space on the road, but when you think about it in shuttle form where you actually get people to share. I think there's a lot of benefits. So can you tell me, you know, first confirm that my assumptions are correct, do driverless shuttles lead to lower SOV right lead to this increase in congestion, and how much lower do we think it could be, how much could we actually save in congestion and emissions?

-(Lauren Isaac) Yeah, so I believe your assumption is correct. That's why I'm actually that's I mean, my whole career has been in transit and TDM and all that, so for me, personally, I believe that the future is driverless and electric and so, first on the reduced greenhouse gas emissions and most companies that are focused on the driverless technology are automating electric vehicles.

-(Andy Keeton) Sure.

-(Lauren Isaac) So that's super exciting. I do always say it's important to decouple them because there are still some companies that are automating non electric vehicles, but I think obviously if you're doing anything involving a electric vehicles, that's going to be amazing for the environment and that's just a huge focus right now from our federal government and certainly at the state level here in Colorado. It's a massive push so I think that's really exciting. So, you know, that's one thing and then the second piece about reducing congestion, for me, I became really fascinated in the driverless technology, but I also got really worried when I thought through like "if every single person has their own driverless vehicle they could just to have massive increases in vehicle miles traveled if people you know, send their vehicles out to run errands for them and they don't care if they park the vehicle twenty miles outside of a city where they have no cost and you know, it's actually really frightening which is why I am so passionate about introducing the driverless technology in a shared fashion. So this is why I think driverless technology and driverless shuttles specifically are just huge they present a huge opportunity because you have many of the automakers are focused on developing driverless technology in their individual cars and in some cases it's for fleets, you know, so creating more of a ride-sharing automated solution but I think it's very important that people early on are introduced to the driverless technology in that shared format because this is an opportunity for behavior change. I know how hard it is to convince people to get out of their cars and do anything different especially if that's what they've been doing for years of their life, so if you introduce something massive like the driverless technology and say you have a different way of getting to work now you have a different way of getting around. This is a chance to really change the paradigm to say "okay now, let's do it in a transit vehicle." Let's do it in a shared vehicle let's carpool. I think that the association with all of it is going to be very different and frankly sexier because now you're doing it with a driverless vehicles. Driverless shuttles are ideal right now. They're ideal use cases because there are so many places like corporate campuses, universities, hospitals, resorts, sports stadiums, all these places that use driver, that you shuttles already where they have low speed repeated routes that are perfect for the technology today and that's what's so exciting. So you're able to introduce the technology safely, but you're also able to do it in a way that people can solve mobility problems. So I think ultimately we are going to see a reduction in congestion as we keep expanding the use of driverless shuttles and other types of vehicles to over the years if we introduce the technology in a shared way today.

-(Andy Keeton) Yes it's you actually just got me thinking to, I remember thinking back to my childhood when I visited the Disney World Resort in Florida.

-(Lauren Isaac) Perfect!

-(Andy Keeton) they got these shuttles going all over and I remember thinking back, it was a few years ago I was thinking back to one of those trips and I was thinking "This is perfect. I can't wait till I have autonomous vehicles. I'm going to go visit." I wish they were there now because we got the the ACT International conferences on this August to be...

-(Lauren Isaac) It would have been perfect!

-(Andy Keeton) Next time!

-(Lauren Isaac) But no, give me a call.

-(Andy Keeton) Yeah, exactly. Well one of the things that's cool about this is like I said earlier, it's that people think it's futuristic, but it's not really an it ties into a lot of these fundamental pieces of TDM and things that we've been talking about on the Between The Lines podcast are going back to our first ever episode with Joey Sherlock where we're talking about behavioral TDM and behavior change. I love the idea that you're bringing up here is what if we make it sexy to share. That's really cool. I think that it could work to get people into the share vehicles. And then going back to last episode last week and kind of part one of this little two-part miniseries about shuttles we're talking with Bobby Lottery talking about electrifying shuttles. This is just a kind of an add-on to the top of that electrification is also why not make it autonomous I wonder if there's any way that you see where is it a good idea for companies now? We're thinking about electrification to also just right now add on that autonomous.

-(Lauren Isaac) Yeah, I think it's such a timely question because right now like I said the federal government and many state governments are really really focused on electrifying their fleets and frankly because of these massive initiatives, I think a lot of private companies are equally interested. So as these companies look at upgrading their fleets and replacing their fleets with the electric vehicles, it's the perfect time to consider automation as well lump them together now, especially when you consider a lot of public agencies in particular have access to government dollars grant money that is all focused on electrification, but that will cover anywhere from fifty to a hundred percent of the cost of the vehicles. So why not include both electric and automated when you're replacing them. I think it's just a huge opportunity it gives, you know the government agency or the private company name a chance to learn the technology which they're doing right now with the electric vehicles anyway, as a chance to learn both electric and automation. So, I think it's exciting and the other thing to think about is many of our driverless shuttle clients today are public agencies. They are public agencies that are very interested in showcasing innovation and learning and educating their stakeholders. And so they use a lot of the public grants and federal grants and state dollars to be able to get automated shuttles on the road, but I think we're going to see over the next few years more private companies that want to actually see a return on investment. There's great opportunity both with transitioning to electric vehicles and with automation to actually experience cost savings you have cost savings from the maintenance because do with electric vehicles but also really significant cost savings when you remove the actual driver from the vehicle, so I think we're going to see a lot more private companies get excited about driverless ant electric vehicles.

-(Andy Keeton) And that goes to one of the key things about TDM which is one of the reasons that I am so excited to be working in this space is a lot of emission saving technologies cost extra money. It's more expensive let's say to put solar on your roof than to just use the electric grid some places is I guess that's changing now rapidly as well. But with TDM everything also, can save you money and so it goes to that whole thing of once private companies start to really realize that the ROI here then they can save money while also reducing emissions helping the congestion around their campuses and just you know, provide a cooler more exciting sexier experiences as well. But let's get into the key question. I think anyone who's talking about driverless vehicles. We've seen in the news various events that happened that make it seemed a little risky, I don't know if I'm gonna you you know, open up this driver shuttles technology to my employees, I don't know what the liability is there, it's new, it's scary. But at the same time we also see the research that says that driverless can make our roads safer can reduce traffic accidents. So let's hear from you do driverless shuttles make our roads safer, what is the impact on safety from switching to driverless?

-(Lauren Isaac) Yes. I have heard this question before.

-(Andy Keeton) I'm sure!

-(Lauren Isaac) I like how you refer to the negative things as events.

-(Andy Keeton) Yes.

-(Lauren Isaac) That was great. So there are a few different ways to answer this question. So first of all, the driverless technology fundamentally  is going to make things safer. I believe that wholeheartedly, our driverless shuttles don't drink, they don't text. They don't do all of these things that truly cause over 93% of the accidents on our roadways today, which is human error. And so you remove the human you actually remove a lot of the challenges. So that's fundamental. I joke around with my husband all the time like the roads are going to be safer when I'm not driving, that is really the case. The other thing is I think it's really important to acknowledge what I said earlier that the driverless technology is at a certain stage of development today where we know at least, you know from for example with Easy Mile technology, we know it can operate in a very specific operational design domain and it can operate extremely safely there and we have we do a lot of risk analysis and a lot of safety and quality checks pre-deployment as well as during deployment and that is something that's kind of core to the company's mission, but I think it's actually a really core responsibility for any driverless company to just take into consideration "This is where the technology is at today. And this is where we can draw our bounds around where we can operate". Different companies take different levels of risk and I think this is where regulators come in and regulations need to play a role to say "this is where we draw the line" and it's a real challenge and I actually really respect the challenge that regulators have which is where do you draw that line and how do you do it in a way that balances like letting the private sector keep developing the technology and not, you know limiting it but also making sure that they keep people safe, but I can tell you that fundamentally the driverless technology is designed to be safe and is generally deployed in very very established situations of proven to be safe. The last thing I will say that's just so important is that I think you know, because so many people are scared of it, it's usually they're scared of it because they don't know it, they have not seen it, they've got touched it, they don't really believe it's true. They see like The Jetsons and they say okay, what is that? I don't know that I want that on my roads. This is why it's actually so wonderful that so many government agencies around the world have been deploying our driverless shuttles already because they are getting it out there and I can just as anecdotally when people first get on to our driverless shuttles, they usually step on and they just immediately start taking pictures. It's like super exciting, you know, they see there's no driver seat, there's no foot brakes there is no rearview mirrors, you know, they're just like how is this thing going to work and they asked million questions and then there's the moment when the doors close and I realized it's time. There's like a moment of fear, you know, it's like sit down and hold on tight, what's going to happen but literally the fear is so momentary because then the driverless shuttle takes off and I think takes off it is a low-speed shuttle and it operates in the most safe and predictable way that it becomes extremely boring very quickly, to the point where people are literally starting to look at their phones and zoning out and that's our goal, like these are not meant to be a rollercoaster ride, they're not meant to be super exciting, they're not meant to be dramatic. They are really a safe mode of transport and I think as soon as someone who experiences it whether it's watching it for literally being in it, it makes a massive difference in their understanding of how it works.

-(Andy Keeton) I'm really excited. I have not yet been an autonomous vehicle of any kind so we need to talk offline as I can get it.

-(Lauren Isaac) Yes.

-(Andy Keeton) We need to make it happen. I have been waiting for this. I'm very much excited about this technology. I agree once we get once we get me a new off the road just that alone is gonna be -(Lauren Isaac) Huge!

-(Andy Keeton) improve safety tenfold so I think that's great and I think important the key thing to think about here is you know, you called ODD operational design domain, right? These are not meant to work everywhere. They're meant to work in a specific scenario where we know they're safe, we know they're going to work. So when we're thinking about "it's so scary" or "how am I going to get this to take me to the mountains to go hiking" or you know, whatever it might be. That's not an issue right now what we're talking about, what we can do today or very shortly is these particular scenarios like the circulator shuttles we're talking about so I think that's really exciting and it's important to think about when we're if we're decision-maker about bringing these in is this works for us here and it's really cool and I think that you know, when we talk about autonomous vehicles, there's a lot of theory and theoretical things now we can get into the tactical and we can look at these particular scenarios that were and I also really like your point about the public agency's using the system to show to others that they're safe, that they're exciting and bring that about so, public and private industry here can come in and drive this forward. But I think that's great. So this is I mean, we're due for another conversation at some point because this is a really important conversation and I think here in the TDM space AVs - autonomous vehicles - are going to take off it sounds like sometimes hopefully sooner rather than later, but for now, we like to keep these episodes nice and quick so we can get back to work. You know if you were on the town of Michelle, maybe you already would have been working, but that's okay you're still finishing your drive and let's just finish off so I want to ask you like I do every time with all of our guests here and a couple of sentences why do you think driverless shuttles are going to save the planet?

-(Lauren Isaac) I think that driverless shuttles are going to make our world, our roadways safer. I think they have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly since they are electric and what's most exciting is they're going to improve mobility and provide access to mobility to a far greater group of people just because they have reduced costs, but they are accessible and they can be deployed as soon as today in very specific use cases. So I think as long as we acknowledge all the great things they can do and put them in a place where they can be operated successfully. We are going to be better off and it's going to be super exciting to see the more things they can do overtime.

-(Andy Keeton) And then this is once again every time we're talking, there's more that we that we don't hit on we didn't even talk about the increased mobility piece here. So I'm glad you brought it up there at the end it's true. There's so many benefits here I'm sure anyone listening, you have more questions I am sure Lauren would be happy to answer them.

-(Lauren Isaac) Absolutely!

-(Andy Keeton) And that's a good segue and pitch for signing up for our email list because we'll put in the email listserv in our email we send out every week we put in contact information for our guests, we put in some further resources to make it easier for you to follow up on this as a tactical way to bring this into your organization. Make sure you sign up for that email list. You can find us at betweenthelines.io subscribe and listen on Spotify, Apple, Google podcast where we listened to your podcast and leave us a rating as well. And you can also find our videos on YouTube if you like our voice you want to see what we look like, it's a good change of pace. So before we end just like we always do we've been building these commuter playlists these music playlist on Spotify so some of you haven't quite finished your commute yet. There's still a couple minutes left before you get to the office 'til you to listen to something else, we're building these playlists with songs from our guests their favorites songs. So Lauren, would you like to add any songs to our playlist? Is there something you want you think needs to be on this playlist?

-(Lauren Isaac) Yeah in honor of this the music we used to listen to when my sister and I did our homework after school. We would listen to Steve Miller Band - Fly Like an Eagle.

-(Andy Keeton) Nice, I love that song. Okay. Yes. We'll definitely add it on, everyone go check it out on Spotify. Perfect. Well, this has been a great conversation Lauren. I really appreciate you coming on and I'm really excited about the future here with driverless shuttles and let's connect because I really want to get into one of these. -(Lauren Isaac) All right. Thank you.

-(Voiceover) Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of between the lines with Andy Keeton. Be sure to subscribe to him 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.