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Autonomy for Humans in the 21st Century City

October 5, 2017

How did the human cross the road? By moving in a steady flow with other pedestrians, drawing on experience to anticipate the movements of a half-dozen speeding, braking, and turning vehicles, and drawing conclusions from a dizzying collection of conflicting, complex information in an instant.

All kinds of autonomous vehicles are increasingly interacting with humans in complex urban environments. How new technologies and humans interact is still an open question. The answer may come down to why innovations like autonomous vehicles are produced in the first place.

“Autonomy for humans for me means a human-centric vision of what cities might be, not an automobile-centric one,” said Jeffrey Schnapp, the first speaker in the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s new series The Ongoing Transformation of the Global Transportation System. “I think that’s what this revolution in transportation is all about.”


Watch video highlights of Jeffrey Schnapp’s talk at Volpe. 

Transportation Innovation that Focuses on the Human Scale

Every day, people who live in cities walk on sidewalks and cross streets, maneuvering around each other and motorized vehicles. Yet much of the history of transportation has focused on mobility beyond the human scale, Schnapp said. Cars, trucks, trains, and ships are meant to move two, three, four, or hundreds of people at a time.

“[These vehicles] are designed precisely to operate in their own roadways or passageways or channels that exceed the scale of the human,” Schnapp said. “Granular mobility, instead, is a kind of mobility that is focused on that fine-grained level, which is the scale of humans themselves.”

Smartphones and new transportation technologies are changing how people and goods move, and how transportation experts think about innovation. Advances like autonomous vehicles that fly through the air and drive on streets are breaking ground, but there is room for innovation in vehicles that operate at the human level, Schnapp said.

“Since the 1970s, we’ve been at essentially a standstill in terms of average speeds of movement,” Schnapp said. “The question is really inventing and devising modes of transport that introduce new efficiencies, but efficiencies that contribute to the quality of life, to the lived experiences of the citizens of the cities of the 21st century.”

Jeffrey Schnapp speaks to a crowd at U.S. DOT"s Volpe Center.
During his talk at Volpe, Schnapp presented a concept prototype for a cargo pod on wheels that can carry items like luggage or groceries, turn on a dime, follow its owner, and autonomously travel to different locations. (Volpe photo)

Smaller Vehicles for Human Tasks

One vision for the future of mobility involves smaller vehicles that serve a range of human needs, rather than one big need: getting from place to place. During his talk at Volpe, Schnapp presented a concept prototype for a cargo pod on wheels that can carry items like luggage or groceries, turn on a dime, follow its owner, and autonomously travel to different locations.

The prototype cargo pod does not use GPS, which would limit its ability to operate where there is not Internet service, Schnapp said. Instead, the pod’s visual navigation system gathers data from its environment as it follows its owner, creating indoor and outdoor maps of the owner’s world that it can share with other pods. The key distinction between the maps these pods create and existing GPS maps is that these are pedestrian world maps, not maps for large vehicles, Schnapp said.

“Our focus has been on leveraging the power of human navigational expertise,” Schnapp said. “We are expert navigators of sidewalk environments. This is our world. And in the process of doing so, trying to extend mobility by offering a multifunctional and a multimodal vehicular platform.”

Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2017
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