Las Vegas, Austin, Jacksonville, Providence, Paris, Singapore, Oslo, Seoul—a short, incomplete list of cities that are planning to integrate or have already integrated autonomous shuttles into their public transportation systems. Unfortunately Atlanta, even though it is home to a transportation corridor uniquely suited to autonomous shuttles—the Atlanta Beltline —is not among the cities with plans to significantly leverage autonomous technology.
This is in part because naysayers and critics relentlessly argue that autonomous technology is years away, which may be true for personal vehicles operating on public roads, however, autonomous, mass transit shuttles operating on geo-fenced closed loops are consistent, reliable and, more importantly, cost effective.
In total, MARTA has approximately $2.5 billion to spend on transportation over the next 30 to 40 years. While that might sound substantial, it is not enough to cover every transportation and infrastructure improvement on the authority’s to-do list. Penny pinching is therefore in order, and efficiency is paramount.
According to initial MARTA estimates, light rail on the BeltLine will cost upwards of $570 million and be complete, assuming funding gaps are closed, sometime around 2045. Autonomous shuttles, on the other hand, can provide transportation on the entire BeltLine for a fraction of the cost, and be accomplished within a decade. How? Each shuttle costs approximately $500,000. At that price, MARTA could purchase over 1,100 self-driving shuttles for the same price as it plans to spend on just 7 miles of light rail along the BeltLine.
To be more specific, let’s consider the first two miles of light rail connecting Ponce City Market with the downtown street car, an early priority for MARTA. According to an article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the authority’s initial preliminary estimate for the short, two-mile project is $125.4 million, per
MARTA. That sum could purchase nearly 250 autonomous shuttles, which could service the entire Beltline within ten years. What’s more, in addition to the expedited timeline the City would save $445 million dollars!
Compounding the initial raw savings, the level of flexibility provided by autonomous shuttles will increase taxpayer savings in the long term.
Ask yourself: How did we get around in Atlanta just ten years ago? There was no Uber or Lyft. No electric scooters. No bike share. None of it. Now think about Atlanta 25 years from today, when it is estimated the BeltLine light rail project will be completed. Even the most conservative estimates predict that come 2045, autonomous vehicle fleets will be transporting a significant amount of goods and people throughout the city. With that in mind there is no need to mince words: By the time the light rail project is complete, it will already be an expensive and permanent transit relic.
The alternative: Invest in technology that is able to transform and grow as our city rearranges and adjusts to the influx of companies and workers. Light rail is stagnant. It is immobile. Once you lay the track, that is where the track leads—today, tomorrow, next week, in a year, in 40 years, 100 years, and so on.
Does anyone actually think we know what Atlanta will look like—where people will choose to live, work and play—in 25 years? Of course not. And if you need further proof of that fact remind yourself that the central hub of the MARTA rail system is the Five Point’s station. Twenty years ago, when Underground Atlanta was filled with tourists and residents every day of the week, it seemed like the obvious choice. Today? Not so much. But who could have foreseen the explosive development in Midtown and the magnetic pull of the BeltLine? Not I.
Luckily, autonomous shuttles are highly flexible, taking the guesswork out of transit investment. Demographic shift? Move the shuttles. Consumer preferences change? Move the shuttles. Growth patterns defy predictions? Move the shuttles. Major sporting event? Move the shuttles. Natural disaster? Move the shuttles.
Asset flexibility is a fundamental principal of smart investments. Let’s apply that principle to our transportation needs.
Finally, not only do we have an opportunity to make a smart investment, but by undertaking the largest investment in autonomous technology in the country, we have an opportunity to raise the profile of our beloved city. In addition to the positive publicity such an investment would garner nationally, an investment in autonomous shuttles will also raise the local profile of our oft-beleaguered, unappreciated public transit agency. In short, innovation will spur ridership. To get Millennials and Gen Xers to engage with MARTA, the organization must speak their language. Young people do not respond to outdated strategy and yesterday’s technology but rather to excitement, novelty and innovation. And, as an added benefit, introducing Atlantans to autonomous transit technology early in its development will increase the likelihood that we, as a collective, will be eager adopters of shared autonomous vehicle fleets upon their widespread deployment.
To conclude, responsible stewardship of public money is the fundamental responsibility of government. Spending an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money on outdated technology while passing on a flexible, efficient, innovative asset is, to put it mildly, ill-advised. Unfortunately, the BeltLine, a project spurred by radical innovation, is set to adopt an unoriginal and unimaginative transportation mechanism. To combat the groupthink clouding the judgement of BeltLine light-rail advocates, and to put Atlanta at the forefront of innovative transportation, city leadership should immediately study the plausibility of deploying autonomous shuttles to the BeltLine.
Eric Tanenblatt is the global chair of public policy & regulation at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, where he leads the firm’s global autonomous vehicle practice. He served in the administrations of three US Presidents and as a senior advisor to U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell and as chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue.