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Center for Transportation Studies

Automated vehicles: the future of urban mobility?

A new kind of automobile— the automated “cybercar”— could be the answer to urban mobility challenges, said Michel Parent at the CTS Winter Luncheon on February 14.

Michel Parent

Michel Parent

The luncheon was sponsored by the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute, a part of CTS. Institute director Max Donath gave introductory remarks.

Parent is scientific advisor to IMARA (Computer Science, Mathematics and Control for the Automated Road), a project team from INRIA, the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control. The team focuses on the research and development of information and communication technologies for road transport, in particular on fully automated vehicles (cybercars). Parent was the creator and director of this team between 1991 and 2010.

Using the example of the greater Paris region, Parent illustrated how cities adapt to and are shaped by new transportation technologies. Paris has been a dense, congested city for centuries, he said, and over time it has constructed many systems—from electric tramways to the Metro to modern toll roads— to serve its mobility needs. Still, Paris today is the most congested city in Europe, and large cities everywhere face the same congestion issues.

The cause, Parent said, is the automobile and its related problems, such as fossil fuel use, pollution, rising ownership costs, and social equity. In Paris, “space is the biggest problem, the commodity that is driving everything,” he said, due to policies that restrict surface parking and encourage bicycling and walking.

This vehicle was part of a demonstration in La Rochelle.

This vehicle was part of a demonstration in La Rochelle.

The city’s strategy is to favor high-capacity modes where and when there is a high demand, and to provide individual modes— such as bike sharing and, perhaps some day, cybercars—for low-demand areas. In addition, Parent said, the city is enhancing mass transit services through automation and optimizing infrastructure use through information sharing—enabling commuters to access real-time updates on their smartphones, for example, to avoid congestion and choose the best route and mode.

Some results are already in place: A tramway circles Paris with “beautiful space for bikes and pedestrians, and little space for cars,” Parent said. A number of bus rapid transit (BRT) lines have been built, some suburb to suburb. And a plan has been accepted for a larger and fully automated Grand Paris Metro, which is expected to take about 10 years to complete and cost an estimated 20 billion euros.

The expanded Metro will minimize the number of stations to maintain higher speeds, which means individual modes will be needed for the “last-mile link” from stations to suburban homes, Parent said. This creates possibilities for automated transportation systems like personal rapid transit (PRT) and cybercars.

Cybercar networks—made up of small, automated, public vehicles segregated from other traffic—would operate similar to today’s bike- or car-sharing systems. Parent’s team at INRIA has been developing components of automated systems for about 20 years, including a prototype cybercar “to provide this last-mile link,” Parent said. “It’s a new form of automobile— the car of the future for urban transportation.”

Other automated transit projects have also been conducted in Europe, including the European Commission’s CityMobil, which ran from 2006–2011 and included 29 partners from 11 European countries. Under the project, major demonstrations were held in London Heathrow Airport (PRT), Rome (cybercars), and Castellion (automated BRT), Parent said.

CityMobil also held a three-month demonstration of a fully automated vehicle in La Rochelle last summer. The system ran in a semi-pedestrian zone with crossroads. The project went fairly well, Parent said— there were no crashes, public response was very positive, and insurance was not a problem. (An insurance company even provided funding.) Safety certification was difficult, however.

In a new project, demonstrations will be run in various European cities to show the potential of automated systems to become self-sustaining. “This is the next step for automated transportation,” Parent said.

Parent concluded with his vision of the future for cars and the car industry: “a very, very smart” public car, adapted to car sharing and run by an operator, with automated parking and perhaps a dedicated track network. Automation could also be applied to freight movement, such as between warehouses and downtown stores, especially if new infrastructure is built, he said.

In response to an audience question, Parent said these concepts could work in the United States, noting a trend toward denser inner cities and a tendency for young people to locate in them. Another trend among younger Europeans is less interest in car ownership: they want a car as an option but may prefer to use their smartphones to arrange car sharing or get a taxi. “You can perhaps have better mobility than with your own car, especially when you consider parking…and price. So I think this might be a long-term trend toward mobility services instead of owning a piece of metal,” he said.

Watch the video of the luncheon