Near-empty buses, low-frequency service and the resulting poor fare recovery are the hallmarks of too many public transportation systems. Using a combination of smaller, electrified vehicles with built-in autonomy, next future transportation, Inc. has a plan to disrupt public transportation by greatly increasing efficiency. Emmanuele Spera, CEO of next future transportation, inc. explains that by reducing the upfront capital costs and ongoing operating expenses, along with improving utilization, the market for shared rides will open to individual and private ownership.
Spera points out that they are using off-the-shelf hardware for their prototype. What makes next future transportation’s approach different from a traditional bus is that it is a modular system, whereby each vehicle has its own source and destination, but, in the middle of its trip, it may couple with other modules to form a virtual train. In this way, it parallels the concept of a packet network in telecommunications, as suggested by CAVCOE’s CTO Paul Godsmark in this interview).
From a congestion standpoint, this could have some huge benefits, as Spera esimates their approach could lead to 85% less traffic in the Bay Area (which is similar to what Dan Fagnant and Dr. Kara Kockelman found when they modeled the potential impact of shared ride autonomous vehicles in Austin, TX). The magic is the software, which controls the operational aspects of each module (e.g. steering, door opening, etc.), as well as the interactions between the different modules.
As importantly, and as shown in screenshots in the above video, it is the human interface aspects of the software that will change the public transportation experience. The app-enabled, on-demand, door-to-door feature that will set this approach apart from traditional scheduled public transit. The experience within the walls of, as Spera terms it, “this room on wheels” may be as significant as the improvement in the quality of transit. Spera points to the day when there might be branded retail modules, whereby a traveler could fill-up on coffee enroute to their destination.
Although this may sound like science fiction, the technology underpinnings are in place. Bolstering next future transportation’s future is their recent agreement with the Roads and Transport Authority of the government of Dubai (PDF page 12), which is another step from concept and prototype to production.