Jan 17, 2020

The rise of AV testbed cities

Computer image of Woven City. Photo: Courtesy of Toyota

In China and Japan, high-tech cities are being developed as living laboratories to test automated vehicles, robots and artificial intelligence.

Why it matters: The real-world incubators could help accelerate the development of infrastructure and related ecosystems needed to support self-driving cars, at a pace the U.S. potentially can't match.

  • Private AV testing facilities exist in places like Michigan, Ohio and California, and some companies are even testing AVs on public streets in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Miami and other cities — but only in small numbers.
  • The U.S. has no large-scale testing environment on par with what the Chinese government or even Toyota are planning for the integration of humans and robots in daily life.
  • Nor is it clear the federal government — or any private corporation, for that matter — could afford to fund such an effort.
  • The Trump administration prefers a light-touch approach to regulating AVs and artificial intelligence, a position that was reinforced last week when Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced modestly updated AV policy guidelines.

Yes, but: It's a different story elsewhere in the world.

China's Xiongan New Area project, near Beijing, is part of the central government's ambitious drive to lead in new technologies like AI and 5G communication.

  • Announced by President Xi Jinping in 2017, the mega-city is being built in a rural area about 60 miles southwest of the Chinese capital, at a potential cost of $300 billion, according to Nikkei Asian Review.
  • As part of the vision, every car would be self-driving by the time the city is completed in 2035.

Woven City, near Japan's Mount Fuji, is a much smaller project — just 175 acres — that is being led not by the government, but by one of its leading industrial giants, Toyota Motor Corp.

  • The master plan calls for dedicated streets for AVs, personal mobility vehicles and pedestrians to help accelerate the testing of autonomy.
  • Only fully autonomous, zero-emission vehicles like Toyota's e-Palette shuttles, would be allowed on the main thoroughfares.

If the U.S. were to build a similar prototype city, it would need to invest or direct billions of dollars in advanced technologies like 5G, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, electric charging infrastructure and vehicle automation in an area with a high population density.

  • Cities like New York and Los Angeles need such innovations, but it's impractical and disruptive to rip up existing infrastructure and start over.

My thought bubble: Why not San Juan, Puerto Rico?

  • Humanitarian issues must take precedence after a series of natural disasters, including earthquakes earlier this month.
  • But its power grid is precarious and its infrastructure is a shambles.
  • Rebuilding from scratch could make it an ideal environment to test cutting-edge technologies and give the local economy a boost, too.

Yes, but: Puerto Rican residents have to want to be test subjects, notes Michelle Avary, head of autonomous mobility at the World Economic Forum.

  • "An active engaged citizenry that understands and agrees to testing, whether it be highly automated driving systems or installing microgrids, vehicle to grid, and EV charging stations, is crucial," she tells Axios.

Previous attempts to modernize Puerto Rico's crumbling infrastructure have struggled.

  • After hurricanes Irma and Maria, Tesla sent solar panels and batteries to the island but its plan to create a modern network of solar-powered micro-grids ran into regulatory and long-term planning hurdles.

The bottom line: Chao says the federal government is "all in" on the development of safe, future transportation. But with the world racing ahead, the U.S. is going to have to think bigger.

Go deeper: Keeping expectations for self-driving cars in check

Go deeper

Self-driving cars are getting their own rules

Nuro's R2 has no occupants, mirrors or windshield. Photo: Courtesy of Nuro

Regulators are starting to rewrite rules for self-driving cars to share the road with traditional vehicles.

The big picture: Automated test vehicles are allowed on public roads in some states — so long as they comply with existing safety standards written for human-driven vehicles.

Cities' transportation ideas remain too small to deliver clear results

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Many cities are experimenting with innovative transportation ideas like scooters or autonomous shuttles, but their efforts are often too isolated or too small to deliver meaningful results, according to transportation experts.

Why it matters: Moving people and goods more efficiently is an urgent priority for many cities, which are grappling with issues like congestion, air pollution and accessibility while trying to raise money for necessary upgrades.

Feds clear the way for Nuro's driverless deliveries

Nuro's second-generation delivery vehicle, R2. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The U.S. Transportation Department is giving its regulatory blessing to the first autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel, pedals or human occupant.

Why it matters: Vehicle safety standards were written for today's cars and trucks, mostly to protect humans riding inside them. By granting an exemption to Nuro's self-driving delivery vans, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is beginning to pave the way for the driverless era.