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How a central control system could keep AV traffic flowing smoothly

a fleet of cars with superimposed directional arrows
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For the most part, the hype surrounding AVs has focused on the cars: how safe they are, when they'll arrive, whether they'll work. But less attention has been paid to how these vehicles will work together as fleets — often shared along the model of ride-hailing services — to receive instructions, pick up riders, pool efficiently and get the right people to the right destination at the right time.

Why it matters: If AV makers flood cities with driverless vehicles, they could add to the traffic pressures created by badly managed ride-hailing fleets. Efficient deployment will require vehicles, operators and travelers to communicate in real time to match supply and demand.

Background: A 15% increase in ride-hailing trips can put 59% more vehicles on the streets, 30% of which are empty (and the services have no incentive to maximize vehicle utilization). And a recent study by the San Francisco Transportation Authority found ride-hailing services are responsible for 51% of the city’s traffic slowdown over the past six years. New York City has already capped ride-hailing licenses in response to traffic concerns.

What's needed: To curb crowding, cities could implement centralized control of AVs — like air traffic control for planes — to direct vehicles from multiple manufacturers and service providers.

  • While airplanes have different onboard hardware and software, all aircraft connect to a single control system, most of which is now automated.
  • A similar system could capture demand and evenly distribute vehicles, pooling travelers and managing key performance indicators such as wait and travel times.
  • To get all parties onboard, including carmakers and mobility providers, the control layer would need to be a vehicle-agnostic platform that could coordinate and optimize fleets in real time. The engine powering the platform would provide data on resource management and service operations that would benefit all players.

Where it stands: The industry is starting to pay attention.

  • A Deloitte article earlier this year argued that “cities likely need a comprehensive, interoperable system that transcends existing infrastructure, drives standardization and interoperability.”
  • As Here Mobility's Liad Itzhak put it: “Smart cities will need a platform, since mobility isn’t their core service. They’ll need the R&D that connects all the different mobility services independently.”

The bottom line: Shared AVs promise to make transit cheaper, safer and faster, with fewer vehicles moving more people. A centralized infrastructure would help realize this promise.

Raphael Gindrat is co-founder and CEO of Bestmile.

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