In Beverly Hills, like most of Southern California, people usually only take public transportation if they don't have another choice. But the city thinks that can change if public transportation is fundamentally redesigned—and that's one reason it's planning to introduce a new network of self-driving electric shuttles.
The idea was sparked by a upcoming challenge: In about a decade, Beverly Hills will be getting two new stops on a local subway line that connects to downtown L.A. The city knew that there wouldn't be an easy way for many people to reach the subway; unlike some other subway stops, neither will have a park-and-ride lot for commuters to leave cars.
"I think my initial thought was that this would be a terrific solution to the first and last mile challenge," says John Mirisch, mayor of Beverly Hills. "But beyond that, it would provide point-to-point mobility to people in the city—which could take a lot of cars off the streets. Of course, in any place in Southern California, that's a very good thing."
In the new system, driverless shuttles will come on demand to riders, via an Uber-like app, using an algorithm to pick up other riders along the most convenient route.
"The problem with buses in the current transportation system that we have, at least in California, is that buses are really a second-class form of transportation," says Mirisch. "It's not a first choice for most people ... Our goal is not only to change technologically the way that transportation works, but to change the way that people look at public transit. We'd love to make it a first choice."
Other cities have experimented with on-demand public transit, though none with the self-driving variety. In Helsinki, the city launched a popular service called Kutsuplus that worked in a similar way, as part of a bigger plan to begin to eliminate driving.
In Helsinki, the idea ran into challenges—even though people loved it, there wasn't quite enough ridership to keep it going. Shortly after a related (but very expensive) startup launched in San Francisco, it also failed. It isn't clear yet how similar programs will ultimately fare in cities such as Boston. But self-driving buses might make low ridership less of an issue, because they'll be cheaper to operate.
Beverly Hills thinks that it won't have to charge more for a ticket than a regular bus, so it should be accessible for the people who are currently using public transportation. It will just be more pleasant to use.
"Transportation's a very labor-intensive business, the way it works now," says Mirisch. "You can cut costs by using autonomous vehicles. I look at this as a true democratization of transportation—if you get people, so to speak, at the same level that they all choose public transportation because it is the most convenient and best form of transportation."
Rather than waiting at a bus stop, the shuttles would come to a rider—particularly a bonus for the elderly or disabled. And because the route is automatically optimized, the ride isn't supposed to take as long as circling through a set route. At the same time, like other public transit, people wouldn't have to deal with paying attention to traffic or struggling to find parking.
Because of the pace of development of autonomous vehicles, the city believes that the system can be in place before the new subway stops open in 2026. "People say, 'Oh, this is going to be something my grandkids can do," says Mirisch. "Well, this is going to be something we all will do, hopefully within the next couple of years. I know that's optimistic, but it will be here before any of us can imagine."
A couple of cities, such as the Swiss town of Sion, are actually experimenting with driverless shuttles now, although they will run on a standard route of stops, rather than sending shuttles to a particular person on demand.
Beverly Hills is hoping that its new on-demand, driverless system becomes a model for the surrounding region—and cities around the world. "Right now we're focused on designing a system that works for our city," Mirisch says. "But if it works here, it can work anywhere."