ULI Toronto News

Learning about the benefits and challenges of the driverless cities of the future from transit advocate Dr. Josipa Petrunic

By Kendra FitzRandolph, Development Planner, Hullmark Developments, and Fabienne Chan, Big Data Analyst

It is safe to say that we have been dreaming about driverless cars since the days of David Hasselhoff — battling the forces of evil with the help of Kitt, his nearly indestructible and artificially intelligent sports car. Now, while we still may be some time away from having our own personal white-knuckled, cybernetic thrill ride (cue the Knight Rider), we are getting closer and closer to a tool that drives like a human without the id and the ego psyche structures.

Around the world, we see the testing and publicizing of driverless vehicles —from the personally-owned examples such as Tesla’s Model 3 and Google’s marshmallow-esque self-driving car to the multi-person/car sharing options such as Navya-Cognitiv and Easymile.  Despite making headlines around the world, the applicability of these vehicles remains very much in a nascent state.

“Driving” this means of transportation into mainstream is Dr. Josipa Petrunic. She is the Executive Director and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) and self-proclaimed “Car-Killer.”  The powerful presentation that she gave at the Dream Unlimited offices to ULI members for the Driverless Cities Speaker Series event focused on the efficiency of driverless cars, not from an individually-owned perspective, but rather a shared mobility lens.

She not only outlined the development of automation and how it has been applied thus far in cities, but also pointed to the practical elements of her organization’s goal. Through CUTRIC, Dr. Petrunic is aiming to provide cities with regular access to semi- or fully-autonomous shared mobility.

This is the future for building great cities.

“Smart Mobility will only be smart if it is greener than cars, cheaper than cars, and faster than cars,” Dr. Petrunic boldly proclaims. Self-driving cars will undoubtedly benefit those who wouldn’t think twice about paying $8 through their smartphone over a $3 TTC fare, but for the city-builder, the true opportunity for transportation equity shines through in cost-savings that come with an autonomous fleet of buses. Think LRT — but take out the rails and messy infrastructure, and replace interlinked compartments with a couple of buses, one after another.

The technicalities are only understandable by a select few, including Dr. Petrunic, whose CV boasts an impressive mix of academic and educational experience from Executive Director of E-Mobility at McMaster University to a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from the University of Edinburgh. But it is clear from her talk that what we hear about in the news about designing for self-driving communities is only the tip of the iceberg.

Considerations such as battery charging time, elemental restraints, and method of charging (for example, plug outlet or induction?) all had significant impacts on Dr. Petrunic’s predictive models for the viability of autonomous electric buses in a “last-mile” case study in Calgary. In fact, based on different routes, run-time, and charge-time, these factors directly affected the feasibility of the Navya and Easy Charge EZ10 for this location. As for other routes and locations, if one method may yield a quicker charge time, but may also mean a shorter run-time, is this the right method for the given location? There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to electric vehicles.

The biggest opportunity for the Canadian industry in the advent of self-driving cars is to take advantage of our existing higher-order transit manufacturers, particularly companies like Bombardier, and convince them to be the first to embrace these new technologies and embark on developing multi-person autonomous vehicles.

Dr. Petrunic concluded by describing the great battle that is now brewing between municipalities and her organization’s ambitious plans to demonstrate the efficiency of this new means of transportation. Municipalities’ transportation departments are struggling to understand that innovation needs to be both encouraged and most importantly, funded. In Ontario, we have the capability to use our existing software-technology industry to engage in these pilot projects. What we need to do is market this technology so as to encourage buy-in, not drive fear of seemingly high-risk technology trials.

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