Autonomous vehicles, AI platforms are the future of mass transit: NSW Transport

The state government's future transport technology roadmap is based on a future where individual vehicle ownership becomes less important, and shared commuting on connected and autonomous vehicles is the norm.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

New South Wales residents and visitors may have a vastly different experience of public transport in the future, with Transport for NSW exploring applications for connected and autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence-powered transport networks.

Speaking at Forrester CX Sydney earlier this week, Jacinta Hargan, director of the Future Transport Program at Transport for NSW, said the state government's future transport technology roadmap is based on four potential "futures".

The first is a future where personally owned autonomous vehicles dominate the roads; the second where people share ownership of connected and autonomous vehicles; the third involves vehicle ownership no longer being important, with lifestyles based around mass transit; and the fourth where technology reduces the need to travel.

As the first scenario could lead to increased congestion on roads, the second and third scenarios with their focus on sharing is what Transport for NSW is betting on and looking to encourage, Hargan said.

"Rather than individual ownership, we see more fleet ownership of automated vehicles, and we also see more services like Uber and the like using automated vehicles. This plays out as a much better scenario from a transport perspective," Hargan said.

She noted that the third scenario is reflective of how millennials view the future of transport, with fewer people getting their driver's licence due to a greater willingness to be in a shared environment.

Moving forward, Transport for NSW has five strategic priorities, according to Hargan.

The first priority is personalising customer interaction by developing platforms that provide real-time contextual information, frictionless payment, easy navigation, and two-way engagement; while the second is transforming the mass transit network by applying technologies to automate mass transit solutions, improve their efficiency, deliver better service frequency, and reduce transit times.

The government's third strategic priority is fostering shared, demand-responsive services by developing flexible and shared-use transport models based on aggregated demand; and the fourth is enabling connected, automated vehicle platforms by supporting the adoption of vehicles and infrastructure that deploy automation to efficiently, reliably, and safely move people, goods, and services.

Creating AI-powered transport networks that manage demand, optimise capacity, and improve flows is the final strategic priority for Transport for NSW, according to Hargan, who stressed that data is core to delivering on all of these goals.

"Data is just so critical, because it not only gives you the insights you need about how your customers are behaving, where they're going, what time they're travelling, but it also allows us to better plan for what customers need and when and allows us to better communicate what is happening," she explained.

"So if things go wrong -- buses are delayed, trains get stuck in stations for a variety of reasons -- if we can communicate with customers better, then their overall experience will improve ... Personally, I don't mind whether I get into a 7:42 bus or 7:55 bus as long as there's a bus when I go to the bus stop."

To achieve these strategic goals, Hargan said Transport for NSW is embracing startup-style principles and methodologies.

The organisation has even coined the term "minimum viable bureaucracy" -- a play on the term minimum viable product (MVP) used commonly in the startup community -- to encourage calculated risk taking within the organisation.

"As a large government organisation, there are many burdens that we face every single day -- whether it be procurement, whether it be resourcing. There's a form [that employees have to fill out] to be able to work from home that's 14 pages long," she said.

"We know we have an awful lot of bureaucracy that we need to get rid of. That's why we came up with the term 'minimum viable bureaucracy', and it's really about helping everyone in the organisation to take that step and say 'actually, I don't need to do it that way, there's a quicker way, there's a better way'."

Transport for NSW is also encouraging "intrapreneurship" by putting interested staff members through programs that teach them how to apply customer-centred design principles to ideas that address customer problems, she said.

It was through this program that the idea of using real-time data to determine how full train carriages are -- which Hargan said is not feasible without the deployment of sensors on all trains -- was refined until an alternative MVP was created that can deliver a similar outcome.

"Some of our app developers are actually using historical data from our Opal card to give people an indication as to whether a train is likely to be full or not. The difference that we will see from that will be quite significant because ... taking a train three minutes earlier can have a massive benefit in terms of [congestion] on those trains," Hargan said.

The NSW Department of Transport has also been undertaking a connected vehicles trial for three years, connecting 60 trucks and 11 buses with road infrastructure such as traffic signals and hazard alerts.

Calling connected and autonomous vehicles "game-changing technology", the department said it is now speaking with universities and other partners to analyse the collected data in order to predict and deploy safety, environmental, and traffic efficiency improvements, as well as moving to expand the trial to more areas and to 55 cars in an eventual goal of implementing on-demand public transport.

"The NSW government is committed to supporting technological innovation and delivering better transport services and improved customer experience as well as social and environmental benefits," the department said last week.

"Our priorities are to enable the safe and legal deployment of connected automotive vehicles."

Understanding that it doesn't have all the answers, however, the NSW government has also been turning to the private sector to help with ideation. In December last year, the government went to tender, calling for pitches comprising "innovative models" for on-demand transport services.

Transport for NSW has additionally been launching innovation challenges providing the private sector with relevant datasets to come up with a solution. One example is the learner driver logbook challenge that was launched in partnership with Westpac, which sought a digital alternative to the the current printed logbook for learner drivers.

Recognising the value of open government data, the NSW government in April also published data from its contactless smart card public transport ticketing system, Opal, to provide a snapshot of how many people travel where and at what time.

The data, collected during two one-week periods in July and August 2016, provides information on how many customers tapped on and off, as well as when they arrived at and/or left their destination.

"Transport for NSW is a leader in open space data, which has been used to great effect in innovation and smartphone apps," deputy secretary customer services Tony Braxton-Smith said at the time.

"Opal data has long been one of our most requested and most useful datasets. Now it's available, it means researchers and developers can access and use the data like never before to innovate and gain insights for a huge variety of benefits for customers and organisations."

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