Wear: Adler, SXSW speakers imagine travel of the future


‘Thought leaders’ in the marriage of mobility and technology gathered this weekend in Austin.

Innovation is coming fast and furious in mobility, but the ideas need to be mixed with practicality.

Steve Adler might have been the most mobile thing in festival-choked downtown Austin this weekend.

With South by Southwest Interactive kicking off, Austin’s mayor was everywhere, giving something like 20 speeches at various tech gatherings and mayoral moshes between Friday and Sunday, his communications aide, Jason Stanford, told me. I caught up with Adler on Saturday afternoon at the Empire Garage on East Seventh Street, where he kicked off an afternoon of talking about “smart mobility.” The “what’s next” of transportation has been a favorite subject of Adler’s over the past year or so as Austin competed (unsuccessfully) for a $40 million federal “Smart Cities” grant.

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The new mobility conversation can be bewildering at times, and it was Saturday, with more than a dash of futuristic fetishism. Most of the ideas floated in such confabs probably will never land. But some will, and Adler thinks it’s critical to be having the conversation.

“In 14 years, when autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous on our streets, what will cities be wishing they had been thinking about now?” he said to me before welcoming the “thought leaders” to the three-hour discussion. Among the topics: exoskeletons for people with disabilities, next-gen connected cars, “reimagining vehicle architecture,” artificial intelligence in cars, parking apps and “a multi-sensory approach to mood enhancement to help soothe the savage commuter.” And, of course, the now-seemingly inevitable self-driving cars.

Yep, a bit out there.

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“Austin, Texas, is one of those places where good ideas come to become real,” Adler said to the crowd of 100 or so squeezed into the music joint to avoid the pelting rain.

Ali Vahabzadeh, one of the founders of Chariot, was among those on hand. Chariot, if you haven’t heard of it, is intended to be a sort of privately funded transit service and fit into a space that agencies such as Capital Metro aren’t covering. The 3-year-old company, founded in San Francisco, was acquired in September by Ford Motor Co., which not coincidentally manufactures the 14-passenger, aqua-colored vans that the company uses on three micro-routes in Austin.

Excuse me. Chariots, not vans, as Vahabzadeh reminded me. One of them was parked on the concrete plaza in front of Empire. “Download AppBookRide,” it said on the side.

The routes run on three shortish inner-city circuits in the downtown Fifth and Sixth street corridor, on Riverside Drive and South Lamar, mostly in rush hours and at 10-minute frequencies, he said. A ride costs about $4, Vahabzadeh said, and people come to what amounts to bus stops to catch the … chariots.

So how many people are using it, I asked. Thousands a day, he said, adding the ridership fruits of both the 150 or so San Francisco vehicles and the 20 at work here. He wouldn’t break it down for me. Proprietary info and all that. So is this an idea whose time is coming, like ride-hailing, or another flier?

“Chariot is reinventing transit,” Vahabzadeh said during a panel on “smart cities.” We’ll see.

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Andy Cantu, director of regional mobility for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, serving on that same panel, tried to throw a dash of reality into the proceedings. All of this talk of smart mobility is all well and good, he said. But the reality is that most Central Texans live miles beyond the reach, economically or geographically, of bicycles, ride-hailing vehicles, transit and, for that matter, Chariot.

“Austin doesn’t have a mobility problem,” Cantu said, “it has a land-use problem.”

Technology, he said “is not a panacea. And we need to understand that.”

Cantu noted the rush of vehicle manufacturers, such as Ford and General Motors and Nissan, into this strange new world of autonomous vehicles, micro-transit and even ride-hailing. He said that in the distant and near past, such companies simply sold a vehicle and didn’t have to worry too much about how that vehicle would be used when the customer drove it off the lot. No more, at least when they start contemplating selling bite-sized pieces of transportation on their cars.

“When you start selling a service instead of a product, context matters,” Cantu said. “And if they don’t think that is true, that context matters, just look at what happened a year ago with Uber and Lyft in Austin.”

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If you don’t remember, the ride-hailing giants misjudged the political environment here, spending $10 million on a political campaign to overturn city regulations for their industry. Austin voters soundly rejected a replacement law of the companies’ devising.

They might have better luck with Texas legislators, who this week will begin debating a state law that would override Austin’s and other cities’ ride-hailing rules.

Jessica Robinson, director of city solutions for Ford, said the company is sponsoring a variety of mobility ideas and the entrepreneurs behind them. The key, she said, is having minds that are both open and incisive.

“It’s about recognizing systems that work and being frank about when they don’t work,” she said.

Maarten Sierhuis, director of the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley, which is working on autonomous vehicle technology, gave the crowd a dose of that reality-based thinking. Curb your enthusiasm about how quickly fully self-driving vehicles might become common on the streets.

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The technology, he said, is very good at collecting and using static information about road networks: lanes, intersections, curb lines, laws and obstructions. But there are limits, he said, and multiple situations where humans are necessary. He put up two photos from San Francisco showing temporary obstructions for construction. The only way around them, he said, would involve breaking the law, something that autonomous vehicles are trained not to do.

That sort of thing, he said, would create standoffs for the helpless passengers of a fully autonomous, “Level 5” vehicle. So Nissan is working on technology that would allow the vehicles to, in effect, appeal remotely to real humans for help. That, of course, is a labor-intensive, expensive sort of oversight. So there remains much work to do on the problem.

“We have to understand what robots are good at and human beings are good at,” Sierhuis said. “If we have to go to Level 5, and we have an annoying vehicle, I can assure you we won’t have the acceptance of the public. We are trying to understand this interaction between humans and vehicles.”

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