A Course Correction for Autonomous Mobility

In the transportation world, there has always been consensus that there is nothing worse than the Single-Occupancy Vehicle (SOV). Well, now there is.

The Arrival of the Zero Occupancy Vehicle

Afew years ago I wrote an article about the Zero Occupancy Vehicle (ZOV) — how gridlock will be augmented by empty autonomous vehicles (AVs). There is simply nothing about a vehicle being autonomous that makes it more likely to achieve higher occupancy. In fact, the current trajectory of AV deployment roadmaps and our transportation policy response ensures its average occupancy will be lower.

Why Occupancy Matters

Car occupancy has always been pretty stable, with an average of 1.1 occupants at peak travel times. Outside of a limited number of areas where there are high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes or toll discounts, little effort has been made to incentivize a behavioral change. A small upward change of average vehicle occupancy (say 1.2 or 1.3) would completely eradicate traffic congestion in our cities. Similarly, a small downward change (say 1.0 or 0.9) will be devastating.

Vehicle throughput versus person throughput

Now consider our driverless utopia — a fleet of cars that we can summon at the touch of a button. Consider that these cars will be empty most of the time — repositioning, waiting, traveling on deadhead return trips. Consider that travel demand spikes predictably 2 times per day, that cars are idle 95% of the time, and that most people live in suburbs or exurbs. How do empty AVs sitting in traffic impact our largest transportation problem? They make it much worse. Faith in driving pattern algorithms alone reducing traffic is misplaced given the relative sensitivity of congestion to occupancy versus to driving skill. And so a correction of priorities is required.

Level 5 is the Wrong Destination

Today the dominant framework for understanding the development of AVs is the SAE Levels of Automation. It has been wholeheartedly adopted by everyone from auto companies to the highest levels of transportation authorities, including the US Department of Transportation (USDOT). It is a staple of almost every presentation you will see on AVs. And level 5 autonomy is presented in our media as the pinnacle of disruptive mobility — as though we are more likely to carpool simply because a car is autonomous.

SAE Levels of Automation

However, it’s important to note that SAE stands for the Society of Automobile Engineers. The prism through which we view the development of autonomous mobility is an engineering framework. It simply describes a roadmap for the technical features of a vehicle, as they progress through stages of development. Its relevance is limited to auto company development teams and their competitive positioning, not to transportation authorities and their planning priorities.

We already have a long-standing hierarchy with which to guide our transportation planning decisions. It prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists over transit, which it in turn prioritizes over cars. The SOV sits appropriately on the bottom rung. And yet now our traditional frameworks and rules are being bypassed in an attempt to accelerate the introduction of autonomous mobility. AVs are not discussed in relation to their level in a hierarchy. This risks diverting our focus from planning a smart, efficient transportation ecosystem.

Which way to intelligent autonomous mobility?

A Crossroads for Transportation Authorities

Governments today compete over deregulation measures for AV deployments, creating an express lane for the SAE vision. USDOT’s latest policy document, now a “de facto global standard” for AV deployments, has prioritized modernizing or eliminating “outdated regulations that unnecessarily impede the development of automated vehicles”. It describes “voluntary technical standards” and “voluntary guidance”, as well as an AV “exemption process” from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. USDOT’s new Nontraditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council furtheraims to cut any red tape that may impede AV deployments.

All this is part of an understandable step towards enabling technological advancement, but it is a huge mistake to omit a strengthening of core transportation planning principles. While USDOT briefly acknowledges this risk in its voluntary guidance for state and local governments to “consider the potential for increased congestion, and how it might be managed”, it is negligent in applying traditional measures for mitigating this risk. Federally-funded transit or vanpool projects, for example, are required to regularly submit NTD reports on performance, including vehicle occupancy.

Reinventing the Pyramid

And so we risk a transportation system that elevates AVs, including those with zero occupants, to the tippy-top of our planning hierarchy. AV manufacturers are accelerating towards this goal, as evident in our vehicle-centered connected infrastructure terminology such as “vehicle-to-everything (V2X)” and a vehicle “green wave”. To avoid a likely negative impact on traffic congestion, transportation planners should commit to a renewed emphasis on occupancy-based planning for all modes, new and old — a re-affirmation, rather than an-upending, of the existing rules of the game.

Extending the transportation hierarchy.

There is simply no excuse today for not enforcing occupancy-based performance measures for all transportation modes, including AV deployments. A vehicle with zero occupants should not be treated the same as a vehicle with one occupant, or two occupants, regardless of its level of automation. The existence of reliable consumer technology for verifying occupancy means that there is no longer any excuse for federally sponsored AV deployments to be exempt from reporting on occupancy. Such a course correction will result in new opportunities for local and state agencies to safeguard and improve the performance of their road networks, and for auto companies to fully participate in solving the problem of traffic congestion.

Carma and Toyota Double Car Occupancy

Carma and Toyota Double Car Occupancy

PLANO, TX (Nov. 13, 2018) – Carma Technology Corporation and Toyota Motors North America are successfully concluding a pilot demonstration of traffic-busting technology that provided shared transportation services for team members at Toyota’s North American headquarters in Plano. The pilot focuses on measuring and growing car occupancy rates, thereby reducing impact on local traffic congestion, air pollution and parking demand.

OmniAir Highlights Carma's Partnership with Toyota Motors North America

As featured in OmniAir's most recent newsletter, Carma Technology Corporation and Toyota Motors North America launched Carma Share, an innovative high-occupancy mobility service for team members at its headquarters in Plano, Texas. The program aims to fight road congestion and reduce carbon emissions.

Team members at Toyota Motors North America are the first in the world to benefit from an integrated campus transportation solution that makes available a fleet of premium hybrid cars for shared commute and private use. Provided by Carma, the technology includes a smartphone app that issues automatic driver approval, instant bookings and Bluetooth-enabled vehicle access.

Read the full article here.

Hybrid Highlanders from the  Carma Share  fleet lining the walls of the Toyota parking garage. 

Hybrid Highlanders from the Carma Share fleet lining the walls of the Toyota parking garage. 

Automating Vehicle Occupancy Verification with VeriRide

At Carma, we believe in rewarding high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) travel. Increasing the number of people in a car is the most effective way to fight traffic congestion, local air pollution and climate change. All over the world, government agencies are experimenting in rewards for high-occupancy vehicles, including dedicated HOV lanes, HOV toll discounts, preferential parking access and road user charging. 

However, until now with Carma's VeriRide technology, verifying vehicle occupancy has been impossible. Most agencies deploy roadside law-enforcement for periodic spot checks, but it's not easy to count people in a car that's moving quickly in traffic, in varying weather conditions. It's also dangerous for the police officers, and degrades traffic flow. Other agencies use automated digital imaging systems for peering inside cars - but these fail for the same reasons. 

Carma's patented system, VeriRide, takes a different approach. Our smartphone app automatically verifies your occupancy in a vehicle. It does this by using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) communications to detect its proximity to a small in-car device - a Car Beacon - that simply transmits a Bluetooth identifier. In this way, vehicle occupancy is reported to the agency and you qualify for preferential HOV treatment.

One of the great features of the VeriRide solution is that it requires no user interaction at all. You can keep the phone in your pocket and the app will automatically verify your occupancy. Our product design process focuses on completely remove all barriers to someone adopting behavior change. This is one of the reasons why Carma's VeriRide solution is ideal for government agencies wishing to verify vehicle occupancy for enabling toll discounts. As you drive through a toll gantry, agencies can simply query for the number of people in your car and apply a reduced rate for carpools.

In this way, Carma is building the future of personal mobility - connected, hassle-free and rewarding. 


Emmett Murphy is Chief Product Officer at Carma.

Product Design for Behavior Change

Your daily commute is probably automatic behavior. Subconsciously, you've probably worked out the very latest moment you can leave to arrive on time and you have a routine for how you get there. Unfortunately, for most people, that automatic behavior involves commuting in a single-occupancy vehicle.

At Carma, we know that our transportation products will only inspire behavior change if they're completely hassle-free to use. Our product design process is deeply rooted in BJ Fogg's theory that behavior change requires 3 fundamental elements to converge: motivation, ability and triggers.

Even if someone is highly motivated to share a vehicle (e.g. to save time in a carpool lane) and even if they are triggered every morning (e.g. watching cars fly past in the carpool lane), they still need a very simple way to adopt the new behavior. For this reason, our product teams continuously strive to reduce the number of taps required to use our products.

A great example of this is our newest Carma Share feature, enabling team members at Toyota's North American headquarters to book a commute vehicle for private carshare trips during the day with a single tap. Unlike other carshare products that typically include taps for car selection, time selection, insurance waivers, etc, our users can book a car with a single tap. 

Even better - Carma Share users can also access the vehicle with just a single tap of an Unlock button in the app. The car is unlocked (or locked) using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. This means that a new user can sign up, get approved to drive, book and access a car all within a few minutes. These same cars can be booked for shared high-occupancy commute trips each morning and evening, removing all ability barriers to adopting real, impactful behavior change.


Emmett Murphy is Chief Product Officer at Carma.