Adler, SXSW speak­ers imag­ine high-tech changes to travel

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - Ben Wear Get­ting There

Steve Adler might have been the most mo­bile thing in fes­ti­val-choked down­town Austin this week­end.

With South by South­west In­ter­ac­tive kick­ing off, Austin’s mayor was ev­ery­where, giv­ing some­thing like 20 speeches at var­i­ous tech gath­er­ings and may­oral moshes be­tween Fri­day and Sun­day, his com­mu­ni­ca­tions aide, Ja­son Stan­ford, told me. I caught up with Adler on Satur­day af­ter­noon at the Em­pire Garage on East Sev­enth Street, where he kicked off an af­ter­noon of talk­ing about “smart mo­bil­ity.” The “what’s next” of trans­porta­tion has been a fa­vorite sub­ject of Adler’s over the past year or so as Austin com­peted (un­suc­cess­fully) for a $40 mil­lion fed­eral “Smart Cities” grant.

The new mo­bil­ity conversation can be be­wil­der­ing at times, and it was Satur­day, with more than a dash of fu­tur­is­tic fetishism. Most of the ideas floated in such con­fabs prob­a­bly will never land. But some will, and Adler thinks it’s crit­i­cal to be hav­ing the conversation.

“In 14 years, when au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles are ubiq­ui­tous on our streets, what will cities be wish­ing they had been think­ing about now?” he said to me be­fore wel­com­ing the “thought lead­ers” to the three­hour dis­cus­sion. Among the top­ics: ex­oskele­tons for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, next-gen con­nected cars, “reimag­in­ing ve­hi­cle ar­chi­tec­ture,” ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in cars, park-

ing apps and “a multi-sen­sory ap­proach to mood en­hance­ment to help soothe the sav­age com­muter.” And, of course, the now-seem­ingly in­evitable self-driv­ing cars. Yep, a bit out there. “Austin, Texas, is one of those places where good ideas come to be­come real,” Adler told the crowd of 100 or so squeezed into the mu­sic joint to avoid the pelt­ing rain.

Ali Va­habzadeh, one of the founders of Char­iot, was among those on hand. Char­iot, if you haven’t heard of it, is in­tended to be a sort of pri­vately funded tran­sit ser­vice and fit into a space that agen­cies such as Cap­i­tal Metro aren’t cov­er­ing. The 3-year-old com­pany, founded in San Fran­cisco, was ac­quired in Septem­ber by Ford Mo­tor Co., which not coin­ci­den­tally man­u­fac­tures the 14-pas­sen­ger, aqua-col­ored vans that the com­pany uses on three mi­cro-routes in Austin.

Ex­cuse me. Char­i­ots, not vans, as Va­habzadeh re­minded me. One of them was parked on the con­crete plaza in front of Em­pire. “Down­load App>Book>Ride,” it said on the side.

The routes run on three short­ish in­ner-city cir­cuits in the down­town Fifth and Sixth street cor­ri­dor, on River­side Drive and South La­mar, mostly in rush hours and at 10-minute fre­quen­cies, he said. A ride costs about $4, Va­habzadeh said, and peo­ple come to what amounts to bus stops to catch the ... char­i­ots.

So how many peo­ple are us­ing it, I asked. Thou­sands a day, he said, adding the rid­er­ship fruits of both the 150 or so San Fran­cisco ve­hi­cles and the 20 at work here. He wouldn’t break it down for me. Pro­pri­etary info and all that. So is this an idea whose time is com­ing, like ride-hail­ing, or an­other flier?

“Char­iot is rein­vent­ing tran­sit,” Va­habzadeh said dur­ing a panel on “smart cities.” We’ll see.

Dash of re­al­ity

Andy Cantu, di­rec­tor of re­gional mo­bil­ity for the Greater Austin Cham­ber of Com­merce, serv­ing on that same panel, tried to throw a dash of re­al­ity into the pro­ceed­ings. All of this talk of smart mo­bil­ity is all well and good, he said. But the re­al­ity is that most Cen­tral Tex­ans live miles be­yond the reach, eco­nom­i­cally or ge­o­graph­i­cally, of bi­cy­cles, ride-hail­ing ve­hi­cles, tran­sit and, for that mat­ter, Char­iot.

“Austin doesn’t have a mo­bil­ity prob­lem,” Cantu said, “it has a land-use prob­lem.”

Tech­nol­ogy, he said “is not a panacea. And we need to un­der­stand that.”

Cantu noted the rush of ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers, such as Ford and Gen­eral Mo­tors and Nis­san, into this strange new world of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, mi­cro-tran­sit and even ride-hail­ing. He said that in the dis­tant and near past, such com­pa­nies sim­ply sold a ve­hi­cle and didn’t have to worry too much about how that ve­hi­cle would be used when the cus­tomer drove it off the lot. No more, at least when they start con­tem­plat­ing sell­ing bite­sized pieces of trans­porta­tion on their cars.

“When you start sell­ing a ser­vice in­stead of a prod­uct, con­text mat­ters,” Cantu said. “And if they don’t think that is true, that con­text mat­ters, just look at what hap­pened a year ago with Uber and Lyft in Austin.”

If you don’t re­mem­ber, the ride-hail­ing giants mis­judged the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment here, spend­ing $10 mil­lion on a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign to over­turn city reg­u­la­tions for their in­dus­try. Austin vot­ers soundly re­jected a re­place­ment law of the com­pa­nies’ de­vis­ing.

They might have bet­ter luck with Texas leg­is­la­tors, who this week will be­gin de­bat­ing a state law that would over­ride Austin’s and other cities’ ride-hail­ing rules.

Va­ri­ety of ideas

Jes­sica Robin­son, di­rec­tor of city so­lu­tions for Ford, said the com­pany is spon­sor­ing a va­ri­ety of mo­bil­ity ideas and the en­trepreneurs be­hind them. The key, she said, is hav­ing minds that are both open and in­ci­sive.

“It’s about rec­og­niz­ing sys­tems that work and be­ing frank about when they don’t work,” she said.

Maarten Sier­huis, di­rec­tor of the Nis­san Re­search Cen­ter in Sil­i­con Val­ley, which is work­ing on au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy, gave the crowd a dose of that re­al­ity-based think­ing. Curb your en­thu­si­asm about how quickly fully self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles might be­come com­mon on the streets.

The tech­nol­ogy, he said, is very good at col­lect­ing and us­ing static in­for­ma­tion about road net­works: lanes, in­ter­sec­tions, curb lines, laws and ob­struc­tions. But there are lim­its, he said, and mul­ti­ple sit­u­a­tions where hu­mans are nec­es­sary. He put up two pho­tos from San Fran­cisco show­ing tem­po­rary ob­struc­tions for con­struc­tion. The only way around them, he said, would in­volve break­ing the law, some­thing that au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles are trained not to do.

That sort of thing, he said, would cre­ate stand­offs for the help­less pas­sen­gers of a fully au­ton­o­mous, “Level 5” ve­hi­cle. So Nis­san is work­ing on tech­nol­ogy that would al­low the ve­hi­cles to, in ef­fect, ap­peal re­motely to real hu­mans for help. That, of course, is a la­bor-in­ten­sive, ex­pen­sive sort of over­sight. So there re­mains much work to do on the prob­lem.

“We have to un­der­stand what ro­bots are good at and hu­man be­ings are good at,” Sier­huis said. “If we have to go to Level 5, and we have an an­noy­ing ve­hi­cle, I can as­sure you we won’t have the ac­cep­tance of the pub­lic. We are try­ing to un­der­stand this in­ter­ac­tion be­tween hu­mans and ve­hi­cles.”

Con­tact Ben Wear at 512445-3698. Twit­ter: @bwear


Maarten Sier­huis of the Nis­san Re­search Cen­ter said that even the most ad­vanced au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle still will need hu­man in­ter­ven­tion dur­ing some sit­u­a­tions.

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