In the near future, autonomous cars could help travelers “fly through” the standstill road traffic encountered at major airports. These vehicles can transform the dangerous, congested roadways for passenger pick-ups and drop-offs.
Today, most tests of autonomous vehicles are on city streets. But, Uber, which is testing cars in Pittsburgh, PA says it hopes to drive to the airport within months.
Airports have been inching towards autonomous vehicles for sometime. At least twelve U.S. airports use some type of automated train to connect between terminals, and, occasionally, to outside transport. Since 2011, Heathrow Airport (UK) has been operating pod vehicles they call “autonomous cars” but they glide on a fixed closed track, not the open streets.
On the inner roadways of airports, autonomous vehicles could replace the clutter of long-distance shuttles, limousines, taxis, etc. In the near future, autonomous vehicles would circle the terminals but then travel to perimeter zones served with rental cars, mass transit and parking. In the distant future, they would connect with longer-distance autonomous vehicles.
The airport is a likely place to begin such innovation as civil aviation is operated by private companies, but under the auspices and safety rules of a federal agency, the FAA. The public diffusion of autonomous cars may require a similar arrangement: close federal regulation of public road space so that passenger trips are safe, secure, and efficient (see blog https://www.grayhomesgreencars.com/will-autonomous-vehicles-fly/)
REDUCE CONGESTION & IMPROVE AIR QUALITY
Airport authorities have a critical need to reduce congestion at the curb. While the number of passengers flying on airlines has grown, the road network around them has not. At LAX, for example, there is an annual volume of around 90,000 vehicles. A recent article notes that it can take drivers in Los Angeles up to 45 minutes to loop the 1.3 miles around the terminals. Meanwhile, similar delays are encountered at LaGuardia, Washington D.C. airports, and O’Hare.
Autonomous car and bus shuttles bring advantages: they could circle airports predictably, reduce the number of vehicle trips in and out of the airport, and speed up traffic flow. In addition to saving travelers time, they will make a significant improvement to air quality, particularly since most of the travel at the airport involves short distances and frequent stops. The wind-driven hot exhaust vapor from cars and trucks is a source of considerable pollution, and autonomous vehicle operations (preferably electric ones) would help airports green up, and reduce carbon monoxide emissions.
IMPROVE TRAVELER EXPERIENCE
The autonomous car will also make airports safer for their customers, the pedestrians. Pedestrians could walk across lanes of traffic (presumably at a light or crosswalk) knowing that the oncoming vehicles would stop. Significantly, there would be fewer vehicles overall, since bus and taxi services could be consolidated.
Most importantly, new autonomous vehicles could help airport concessions meet their ADA requirements: new vehicles could be designed with the disabled in mind, with roll-on/roll-off ramps so that passengers who are less able to walk have easier access to curbside drop off. Newly designed vehicles also provide an occasion for airports to reimagine wayfaring and signage, so that airports become more navigable to international visitors and first-time travelers.
THE PROVING GROUNDS
Airports are a cultural United Nations…a spot where people from all over the world converge. Airports also are an innovation zone, where passengers have learned to expect safe and hands-free air travel, in a highly regulated industry.
Likewise, airports could provide a safe haven where consumers can be introduced to self driving vehicles and gain confidence with its safety features. A short airport trip in an autonomous vehicle to a perimeter parking lot or taxi zone is a seamless way to introduce and diffuse the innovation.
Meanwhile, for manufacturers and regulators, the airport provides a controlled and closed environment for testing. Extensive research could be done on vehicle- to- vehicle communications, road markings, and travel under all-weather road conditions. The airport is a proving ground where public entities and private firms can come together to explore technology and policy needs.
REPURPOSING THE PARKING
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to airport demonstration will not be the technology of the autonomous car itself, but rather, its predecessor, the gas powered vehicle. Major airports, like Los Angeles and Chicago have a ringed inner layout with parking, and it generates significant income. Revenue from parking concessions also helps subsidize other travel connections, like the buses and transit needed to ferry passengers from garages to terminals. The San Francisco Airport, which is probably at the low-end of parking revenue, indicates in its 2014/2015 annual report that 15% of its operating revenues come from parking and transportation. The LAX annual report (with Ontario), indicates that other operating income, which includes parking was just .4% of their operating revenue, but parking itself brought in $99.4 million.
It is unclear how airport authorities will make up this lost revenue, any more than federal and state authorities will offset dwindling gas taxes. But, many airports have taken a first step and replaced short-term parking with free, “no charge” cell-phone waiting lots. Their next step is reimagining how large parking lots might be repurposed into more valuable real estate- perhaps hotels, convention centers and meeting space.
In a couple of months, the Uber autonomous car may reach the Pittsburgh airport. The bigger, and necessary challenge, is driving it home to Chicago and airports beyond.