Why a retirement town became a test track for driverless cars

The race to get robotic vehicles operating freely on bustling streets may be won by a developer that drives the slowest cars, as one tech start-up turns to an unlikely testing ground to prepare automated cars for modern cities — retirement communities.

 Automated vehicles have long been seen as a crucial part of the cities of the future, offering the potential to rethink public transit and cut congestion.

However, the technology is in its early stages — regulators treat the industry with caution and testing on public roads is tightly controlled. Autonomous vehicles came under the spotlight in March 2018 when a woman died in a collision with an Uber self-driving car in the US as she crossed a road in Arizona. This prompted Uber and others in the sector to temporarily suspend testing, raising questions about the ability of robotic cars to handle real-life.

In an effort to accelerate the technology, US start-up Voyage Auto has secured a five-year licence to run its automated vehicles in retirement villages where speed limits are slower, road layouts are simple and drivers are generally cautious.


“In retirement communities everyone is driving like a grandma, and that’s how self-driving cars drive today,” says Oliver Cameron, chief executive of the Palo Alto-based start-up. “Retirement communities are the ideal place to start [the automated car] revolution. We are very much welcomed with open arms”.


In retirement communities, everyone is driving like a grandma; that’s how self-driving cars drive today


Spread over 32 square miles in Florida, The Villages is the largest US retirement community, housing 125,000 residents and connected by 750 miles of mostly private roads with low speed limits and few traffic lights. Florida’s climate avoids the problem of ice and snow, and thousands of retirees — many of whom have quit driving — need ride-hailing services. Typical trips are between home and the golf course or church, and regulations governing automated vehicles are less stringent on private roads.


“[In retirement communities] you have control over the operational design domain, you have low speeds, you have limited complexity, you have a consumer need for pick-up and drop-off activities, so you have an ideal location to launch a business while testing the technology,” says Michael Ramsey, senior research director, automotive and smart mobility, at Gartner.


As lifespans increase and populations age, experts say the market will grow. The US Census Bureau last year forecast the number of Americans aged over 65 would exceed those under 18 by 2035.


Voyage is operating its nine-strong fleet of automated vehicles — Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Ford Fusion hybrids — with a human “safety driver” to take control if required. The agreement covers a smaller version of The Villages in California’s San Jose. In return for exclusive rights to operate, Voyage has given the owners of The Villages a 0.5 per cent stake in the start-up.


This allows Voyage to hone its technology and business model. Rides are free for residents but in the future Voyage plans to charge, possibly through a monthly contract that includes a number of rides.


While bigger companies such as Uber and Cruise Automation, the self-driving division of General Motors, have raised billions of dollars with the goal of launching fleets of robo-taxis, Voyage’s model entails building the software that makes the car drive itself and integrating it with a commercial vehicle.


“We build the brain of the autonomous vehicle. We want to package up the brain and sell it as a service,” says Mr Cameron.


Voyage was founded in 2017 by four former employees of online education start-up Udacity. The start-up has raised $23.6m in two funding rounds, and is owned by its employees and venture capital groups including Khosla Ventures and Initialized Capital.


“The real question is: are there enough of these retirement communities available to make a difference?” says Mr Ramsey. “It’s a good place to try and make a business model work, but I am not sure it’s a great way to make that business model apply to everywhere else.”


Although testing in a controlled environment could speed the technology’s evolution, he says there is no replacement for real-life experience. Cruise tests its vehicles in downtown San Francisco. “They are challenging technology in a way that Voyage is not,” he says.


However, Mr Ramsey plays down suggestions that automated vehicles will dominate city roads in the near future. In fact, they may fit best in places such as The Villages.


“In the modern city, autonomy is going to nibble around the edges where economics work, where safety works, where complexity is limited. The examples are retirement communities, planned communities, campuses or even in cities with limited complexity routes between parking and offices,” Mr Ramsey says.


“All those things are much more likely to see automation than a fully autonomous fleet of cabs that can pick you up and take you anywhere you want.”



Source: Financial Times



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