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Sean Harrington  headshot

Autonomous, Electric Shuttles Could Be the New Face of Shared Rides

Optimus Ride's sustainable autonomous electric shuttle

Carbon emissions dipped last year as Americans stayed home rather than commuting and traveling during the pandemic, but they're set to rise once again as the nation becomes more active. To combat this upward trend, the Joe Biden administration is pushing American businesses to do their part to reach at least a 50 percent reduction in economy-wide emissions by 2030.

Transportation is the largest contributor to carbon emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA, making it a sector of the economy that is ripe for targeted reductions.

Electric shuttles: A community-centric mobility solution?

On top of environmental impact, carbon emissions disproportionately affect poorer and diverse communities, which are often underserved by traditional transportation methods like buses and taxis. The wellbeing of  communities and the planet must be taken into account to create a truly sustainable future of transportation for all. Electric, shared, autonomous shuttles present a major opportunity to drive a more sustainable future and offer compounding benefits when deployed in local communities to meet existing mobility needs.

The average all-electric vehicle sold today produces less than half the emissions of gas-powered vehicles both short-term and throughout their lifecycle, leaving no doubt that electrification of vehicles will significantly reduce emissions. Automotive manufacturers committing to produce 100 percent all-electric vehicles by 2040 or sooner are putting the U.S. on a path toward cleaner transportation. However, the industry still faces its challenges in gaining widespread adoption, including a lack of accessible charging stations and general acceptance of electric vehicles over fossil-fueled vehicles. Community-endorsed electric shuttles can remove the burden of personal vehicle ownership and the challenge of accessing charging stations, while propelling community electrification efforts.

Shared rides cut emissions and gridlock

Electrification only addresses one part of the challenge. The second key ingredient to increased sustainability is shared rides. Given that 45 percent of vehicle trips in the U.S. are three miles or less and tend to be concentrated in and around specific areas such as academic campuses, business parks and surrounding metro hubs, the use of pooled rides in these geographically constrained areas can lead to a major reduction in traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The adoption of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have been shown to increase total vehicle miles traveled, as these alternatives generally perpetuate the single-passenger vehicle model while adding deadhead miles. By providing a convenient and affordable alternative to personal vehicles and ride-hailing, shared, electric autonomous vehicles can replace high volumes of single-passenger rides and traditional gas-powered shuttles. Shared rides also reduce the need for parking infrastructure, which negatively contributes to emissions and takes up valuable community space.

A joint Harvard-MIT study found that pooled rides are critical to supporting sustainable community transport. Yet, historically, there has been a recognizable trade-off between shared rides and rider convenience, with long wait times, inconsistent availability, limited service areas and other issues. As pooled rides and shared forms of transit continue to play a larger role in transportation and the path to a more sustainable future, rides must be both convenient for the rider and good for the environment and communities. Electric, shared rides are a huge step in the right direction, but the third critical aspect to unlocking the greatest sustainability potential is autonomy.

Autonomy brings it all together

Autonomy increases the cost-effectiveness and flexibility of shared, electric shuttles, enabling communities to address transportation needs with the balance of affordability and convenience. With lower operating costs, autonomous vehicles can be deployed more efficiently and dynamically than manually driven vehicles, providing a better match of supply with demand in real-time. Removing the costs and constraints of manually driven vehicles allows for longer and highly dynamic operating hours for vehicles in a fleet. Higher rider adoption of shared, electric, autonomous shuttles — due to increased rider convenience — creates a net-positive impact on sustainability by taking people out of single-occupancy vehicles. In addition, with dynamic fleet management, vehicle routing and optimization, congestion, and energy usage is reduced.

Further, as more vehicles become autonomous, there will be increasing efficiency gains in traffic mobility that reduce pollution. Algorithms that can use traffic data to seek the most efficient routes, whether for a single ride or on a transportation loop within a community, lead to reduced energy usage, less traffic congestion and lower transportation costs. It is estimated that shared, electric, autonomous vehicles can reduce emissions by up to 94 percent through a combination of better road utilization, driver productivity and energy savings.

Researchers in the joint Harvard-MIT study also concluded that the trio of electric vehicles, shared rides, and autonomous operation are “a means of offering both cost-effective mobility on demand and reduced energy consumption and emissions.” In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded Optimus Ride up to $4.3 million to launch the first autonomous vehicle (AV) system at Clemson University. The AV deployment at Clemson’s campus will be one of the largest to date, and it provides a unique opportunity to prove how autonomous, electric shuttles can reduce the environmental impact of transportation, increase the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles, and provide valuable mobility services. This deployment will be a model for future benefit to other campuses and communities.

As the U.S. prioritizes a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, combining autonomy, electrification and shared rides is key to a more sustainable future for all. The fastest path to real impact on our carbon footprint and widespread adoption of this technology and these sustainable rides is through deployment in localized communities. Autonomous, all-electric shuttles are poised to chart a path to the future of sustainable transportation.

Image courtesy of Optimus Ride

Sean Harrington  headshot

Sean Harrington is the CEO of Optimus Ride. He brings deep expertise developing, commercializing and scaling technology solutions, with experience at both startups and large, global corporations. Most recently, Harrington was Vice President of City Solutions at Verizon where he was responsible for a broad portfolio of innovative products and services that helped cities increase livability, sustainability, and safety for their citizens. Prior to that, Harrington was Chief Operating Officer and member of the board of directors at Sensity Systems where he oversaw technology development, marketing, sales, and operations for the company through its acquisition by Verizon in 2016. At Optimus Ride, Sean helps guide the company’s mission of delivering a more sustainable future of transportation. Optimus Ride recently became the first independent autonomous mobility company to join The Climate Pledge, a commitment created by Amazon and Global Optimism that calls for companies to become carbon neutral by 2040, meeting the Paris Agreement 10 years early.

Read more stories by Sean Harrington