Citizen Comment delivered to Austin City Council’s Audit & Finance Committee on September 26, 2018.
I am here to request that the Office of the City Auditor conduct a Special Report on Autonomous Bus Rapid Transit (or ART) technology.
The City of Austin will likely face a request from the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority for major changes to the City’s right-of-way policy in 2019, as well as an additional request for substantial investment in capital projects in 2020. These requests are an expected recommendation from the 3rd Phase of the current vintage of Project Connect.
In recent weeks, the leadership at CMTA has highlighted the promise of ART. Autonomous self-driving is one powerful feature of ART. But its most transformative theorized feature is vehicle-to-vehicle communication. This allows, in theory, elongated buses to get very close to other elongated buses, while traveling at high speed.
This is referred to as “platooning”.
Platooning, as theorized, transforms transit economics. It allows cheaper bus vehicles to move almost as many people through a signal cycle as lower-capacity light rail configurations. And ART buses can drive in and out of routes adjusting to real-time demand, further reducing total system costs.
However, when we closely inspect the actual capabilities of the five proto-ART bus models highlighted by CMTA leadership, it seems the technology still needs substantial development. When using the ACES criteria proposed by Project Connect staff, it becomes clear that while these electric-powered models have achieved some level of success at self-driving, there are no demonstrations of urban, autonomous platooning at light-rail speeds or dynamic route changing.
In June of this year, there was a successful demonstration of computer-assisted freight truck platooning at 62 MPH; but the goal of that demonstration was to highlight a driver-assistance feature. These so-called platooning trucks still had drivers. This is not the ART we are being promised by CMTA.
Given the stakes, the uncertain timeline for ART features, and the importance to the future of Austin, this technology merits a Special Report. The report would answer questions such as:
- How will the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) estimate the future of ART?
- How will ATD assess and validate ART ridership and cost estimates from partner agencies, such as the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority?
- What will be the insurance costs associated with platooning?
- And what do independent experts currently estimate ART’s future to be?
A thorough, independent report by a the City Auditor would augment trust in the rigor of decisions made by City Council as it reviews right-of-way policies and transit investments stemming from Project Connect’s recommendations.
Thank you for your time and attention.