In Contra Costa County, CA, the Transportation Authority (CCTA) is working closely with county medical facilities, union labor, and private firms to develop innovative mobility solutions.
Contra Costa County, a suburban community in the San Francisco Bay Area, has a growing population of senior citizens–and, in a community where the median home costs almost $700,000 (the US median is $245,000), the county is frequently looking for ways to build more equity into its social services.
In 2018, Contra Costa Health Services, the county’s medical facilities, had a growing rate of absenteeism, particularly in low-income communities. Seeing a use case for innovative transit solutions to be developed, Contra Costa Health Services reached out to CCTA.
“We’re looking at using an autonomous shuttle that is ADA compliant and would be a point-to-point service to pick up disabled people, veterans, and even seniors from their homes and take them to the county hospital,” explained Tim Haile, Executive Director of CCTA.
After the onset of the COVID19 Pandemic, Contra Costa Health Services started using virtual medical appointments, but still saw demand to support transit to in-person appointments. As the need for in-person appointments again began to grow after the impact of the Pandemic waned, CCTA has continued developing its robust pilot autonomous vehicle programs.
CCTA is funded largely by the county’s transportation sales tax, which its voters implemented in 1998. Contra Costa’s automated driving system pilot is funded through a U.S. Department of Transportation’s Automated Driving System Demonstration Grant. The program is also being funded by additional public and private partners, including Amazon Web Services, Intel, and Verizon. The agency has also been partnering with researchers at UC Berkeley to collect, analyze, and share data from this and other autonomous mobility projects.
After reviewing multiple request for proposal (RFP) responses, CCTA chose to work with May Mobility, an Ann Arbor, MI-based company. “May Mobility offers one of the few FMVSS (Federal Mobility Vehicle Safety Standards) vehicles that’s available with this [autonomous] technology. That’s why we picked them for this project,” explained Haile.
CCTA’s fleet of seven Toyota Sienna’s are rear loading, ADA complaint shuttles that are purposely built to be autonomous, rather than retrofitted, like other vehicles currently on the market. While the vehicles don’t have human drivers, they are currently staffed by a safety attendant who supports customers during the ride. From the beginning, Haile explained, the county has been working with union labor to identify how to include them in this new technology.
“Introducing autonomous vehicles to complement transit services can create new jobs. We need to have people in the back office that are supporting the project,” said Haile, referring to the human capital benefits of autonomous vehicles. “We need someone who would be looking at monitoring and remote assistance, dispatch to pick up service requests from customers, and maintenance.”
The program is also committed to environmental sustainability. “The vision for this program includes using 100% electric vehicles,” said Haile, in reference to California’s goal of achieving net zero carbon pollution by 2045. “The Toyota Sienna is a clean emissions hybrid, which helps with climate goals.”
To advance and scale autonomous mobility, says Haile, three things must happen:
Adopt regulations: Regulatory framework needs to evolve to meet demands of the changing technology.
Public acceptance: Agencies need to implement public education programs to help develop public acceptance to these new methods of transit.
Workforce development: Implementing new technologies require new jobs.
To build the public’s awareness foster acceptance of this new technology, CCTA participated in a series of events last summer through all 19 cities in Contra Costa County. These engagements also gave Haile and his team the opportunity to learn from the public what types of use cases would be of interest to them using autonomous technology.
The community appears to be receptive: in a recent travel behavior study, researchers found that 70% of residents polled were excited about this new technology.
To learn more about Contra Costa County’s autonomous vehicle pilots, contact Lindy Johnson, Director of External Affairs, email@example.com.