Shaping an equitable SAV system for Minnesota

Shared autonomous shuttle vehicle in an urban area
Researchers surveyed Twin Cities residents about their comfort level riding shared autonomous vehicles, which one day could be part of public transit systems. Photo: Shutterstock

Before long, technology will make a system of shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) possible in the Twin Cities—but can a SAV system be both feasible and equitable? A team led by Professor Yingling Fan is examining the steps both private firms and public policymakers need to take to ensure SAV systems are used by the general public as well as disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

Noah Wexler, a PhD student with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, shared preliminary findings at the 2020 CTS Transportation Research Conference in November. The research is part of a larger, multidisciplinary study led by Professor Zhi-Li Zhang (Computer Science and Engineering) and sponsored by the National Science Foundation; Fan is the co-principal investigator leading the social research component.

“We know that any shared automated vehicle system will likely have a public component, and that there are individuals who might not be comfortable using such a system or believe that it could work for them,” Wexler said. “If rolled out effectively, SAVs have the potential to improve transportation equity, so we wanted to explore what the individual determinants are in willingness to use a publicly sponsored SAV system.”

The research team began with a survey of Twin Cities residents, aiming to diversify the survey group through Facebook ad targeting. Survey participants were shown video of SAV shuttle prototypes, then asked a series of questions to determine their demographics, geography, specific travel behaviors (using interactive mapping), and the priority features of their ideal SAV product. The questions examined how three key factors—respondents’ level of comfort with SAV systems, their maximum payment for a trip from their home to downtown Minneapolis, and their maximum wait time for a trip to downtown—were linked.

Researchers gained insights from their preliminary analysis of survey data. For example, they found that the more comfortable a respondent was with vehicle sharing (pre-COVID), the more they were willing to pay and wait for a ride. In addition, they found that people 65 and older were unwilling to pay as much as other age groups, that people who had access to vehicles were willing to wait longer and pay more, and that men felt more comfortable with SAVs but were less willing to pay.

Policy recommendations based on research findings are aimed at helping shape an equitable rollout of SAV systems in the Twin Cities. Researchers say that municipalities and SAV firms must ensure SAVs accommodate COVID-19 safety features, set rates that are affordable for those earning less than $25,000 annually, and pursue lower wait times and payments (as those with frequent access to automobiles may see SAVs as more of a leisure opportunity).

The gender disparities evident in this initial analysis warrant further examination, according to the research team. “We can see that gender disparities exist, because women simply feel less comfortable riding SAVs,” Wexler said. “This disparity needs to be examined further, and we plan to take a closer look at our survey data to examine possible concerns about harassment and security and see how those concerns could be addressed.”

To fully examine the equity perspectives, the research team is working to increase the number of survey participants from racial and ethnic minority groups. Final results from this transportation equity research are expected to be released in summer 2021 by Fan, Wexler, and their collaborators including Travis Ormsby at U-Spatial, Frank Douma at the Humphrey School’s State and Local Policy Program, and Shannon Crabtree at HOURCAR. 

Writer: Megan Tsai

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