Why Austin, Texas Is a Perfect City for Autonomous Vehicles
A fun night out in Austin, Texas, these days might involve any of a number of activities: catching a comedy festival at the historic Paramount Theater downtown, grabbing drinks and playing cornhole on the patio of a bar like Lustre Pearl, watching the colony of bats emerge from underneath the Congress Bridge for their breakfast at sunset — or something else entirely. The capital of the Lone Star state has become an international cultural destination in recent years as well as one of the leaders of the technology industry.
A major milestone to continue Austin’s progressive advancement will come in 2022, when the public will be able to experience the benefits of autonomous vehicle technology to transport them to select areas around town or deliver retail items to their home. Argo AI, a self-driving technology company, has partnered with Ford and Lyft to deploy self-driving vehicles for passenger ride-hailing in Austin and Miami— with a pledge of more cities to follow. Argo is also working with Ford and Walmart to offer delivery of groceries and other household goods to people in Austin, Miami, and Washington, D.C.
Why did Argo choose Austin as one of its launch cities for autonomous ride-hailing and goods delivery?
The city has a few key attributes and transportation elements that make it a great fit for self-driving cars, including rapid growth in recent years which has eclipsed the range of public transit, an accompanying increase in traffic, and streets filled with construction, scooters, cyclists, pedestrians and other unusual vehicles — putting the most perceptive drivers to the test, human and artificial alike.
Here are some of the factors that make autonomous vehicles well-suited to move people and goods around Austin.
Confusing one-way streets
Argo’s self-driving system is flexible and designed to handle a multiplicity of urban road types, from the narrow, winding, steep streets of Pittsburgh where the company is headquartered and tests on public roads, to the roundabouts and sharp angles of Washington, D.C., another test city, to the longstanding Medieval roadways of Hamburg, Germany, where Argo will begin mapping public roads in 2021.
Austin, by contrast, is a much “newer” city in historic terms, having been founded as the capital of the Republic of Texas in 1839. From that time period onward, it has had a more uniform, grid-like layout, especially compared to other, more ancient cities.
“The road infrastructure of Austin is friendly to autonomy,” says Kevin Hodgkins, an Autonomous Vehicle Systems Test Manager at Argo’s Austin office, citing the city’s more uniform, grid-like layout as one aspect of why.
In his role, Hodgkins oversees a team of other Test Specialists who ride in Argo’s self-driving test cars— based on Ford Escape Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid models — around the streets of Austin day and night. The Test Specialists’ job is to closely monitor the performance of Argo’s self-driving system and, when necessary, to perform manual takeovers of the car according to guidelines first introduced in Argo’s extensive, four-week-long training course.
Hodgkins, who is 27, joined Argo three years ago in the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters, but moved to Austin in January 2021 to help expand its testing operations in the city. As such, he is well positioned to compare the unique aspects of the driving environment in both cities.
While Pittsburgh is narrow and windy, in Austin, “we get a lot of one-way roads that are three or four lanes wide,” Hodgkins says.
The additional lane space makes it easier for all vehicles to maneuver — human-driven and autonomous alike. But while human drivers are frequently confused by one-way streets, the Argo self-driving system is not, because it’s equipped with detailed and current knowledge about the roads in its operational design domain, including, of course, the specifics of direction of traffic for each lane. This knowledge is derived from advanced 3D mapping of its environment, a process that Argo technicians continuously employ by driving sensor-equipped vehicles around the city.
“We’ll drive and see someone turn towards us in a one way and we’re like, ‘well, this is awkward,” says Maya Zbeda, 24, one of the Argo Autonomous Vehicle System Test Specialists in Austin. “That happens a lot.”
Fortunately, Argo’s self-driving system is designed to drive safely even around those who are going the wrong way down one-way streets, and will slow, stop, or maneuver around them depending on the situation.
Many of Austin’s one way roads were converted from two-way roads in the 1970s in an effort to streamline traffic, but some have now revereted back to full or partial two-lane routes as part of the city government’s plan to slow traffic and spur more walkable, cycleable and scooterable streets. While these changes can throw even longtime Austinites for a loop, the Argo self-driving system’s aforementioned 3D maps are continuously updated with new roadway imagery containing the new signage and traffic markings, making it a great fit for a city whose very street directions are in flux.
More people, more traffic
Austin’s population has boomed over the last 20 years, from 1.2 million people in the metropolitan area in the year 2000, to nearly 2.3 million by 2020, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce — a total growth of over 83%.
That growth in population has come with an accompanying increase in vehicle traffic, making getting around the city more challenging for everybody. Even the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary restrictions didn’t dent the traffic in the city much: by early 2021, traffic had reached 1.62 million drivers, nearly 90% of its pre-pandemic level, according to local NBC affiliate KXAN. Despite an increase in personal mobility options like scooters and bicycles, cars are likely to remain one of the primary methods of getting around the city for most people.
“Austin and most of Texas is a community where cars are integral to daily life,” says Sly Majid, a Public Policy and Government Relations Manager at Argo and former Chief Services Officer of the Mayor of Austin, as well as a 20-year resident of the city. “The challenge for Austin is, as it has grown exponentially — essentially doubled in size every 20 years — our infrastructure has not kept up.”
Not surprisingly, the overall growth in vehicle traffic has resulted in people spending more time stuck in congestion: up to 61 hours per year on average, dating back to 2016, according to a study from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute
Major ride-hailing services Lyft and Uber, of course, are a significant method of travel for people in Austin. While the pandemic caused a sharp and sudden drop in these trips, usage appears to be bouncing back. The number of transactions nationwide has risen steadily on both apps since April 2020, as data published by Bloomberg reveals, which has been reflected in Austin with more cars returning to the roads.
“Individuals here have that desire to move with haste,”says Cleophus Joyner, a Test Specialist in Austin and longtime resident of the area. “But the drive to move quicker causes everyone to move slower.”
Austin’s growth has also tragically come with an increase in traffic fatalities: As of September 2021, Austin was on track to have one of its deadliest years for traffic fatalities on record, with 91 people killed in the first 9 months of the year.
According to the Austin government’s Vision Zero website, part of a voluntary national program dedicated to reducing the number of traffic deaths, 21 pedestrians and 4 bicyclists were killed in crashes as of August 2021.
An earlier analysis, from data gathered in 2019, showed that 41% of all traffic fatalities in Austin were among pedestrians.
Autonomous vehicles, like those of Argo, seek to reduce the number of traffic incidents as well as overall traffic congestion, including taking special care around vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.
Argo was founded to “make getting around cities safe, easy, and enjoyable for all,” and established safety as its number one value. As the company states in its detailed, 55-page safety report, “Self-driving technology holds the promise to vastly reduce the number of automotive crashes and resulting injuries and fatalities, both for vehicle occupants and for others using the streets, including cyclists, pedestrians, and scooter riders.”
How can the Argo self-driving system — a collection of hardware sensors, computers and software that analyzes the data and pilots the vehicle — increase road safety in Austin?
The Argo self-driving system is designed to continuously observe its surroundings from 360 degrees, analyze and understand the road environment and the people, animals, and vehicles that may be using it, and always make the safest possible driving decisions along its route. Unlike human drivers, it never gets fatigued, distracted, inebriated, or frustrated by the traffic around it and the actions of other road users. It detects objects with high precision in day and night.
In Austin specifically, the Argo self-driving system can help create safer streets by detecting the many different types of road users that fill the city throughout the days and nights, from other vehicles, to scooters, bicycles and pedestrians, all with high precision and without being overwhelmed. It will follow the street signage and markings correctly, patiently wait until it is safe to travel forward while finding the best route, and provide passengers the chance to use their phones, relax, catch up on work, sightsee, or whatever other passive activity they wish. And it will continuously update its maps of the area with the most relevant information about road closures, construction, and other obstacles.
As for reducing traffic in Austin, the Argo self-driving system is designed to operate in fleets of vehicles that can relay highly localized, up-to-the-minute road condition information back to Argo’s computer servers. Using this highly localized and timely information, Argo’s servers can reroute other vehicles in the fleet around jams or areas of heavy traffic.
Thriving tech and culture scene
Read any ranking of modern tech industry hubs in the United States, and Austin is likely near or even on the top of the list.
The city has been a magnet for technology companies going back to the 1960s, with IBM, Texas Instruments, Motorola and other notable names setting up offices.
While Austin’s tech industry has undergone periods of growth and contraction, the past 20 years in particular have seen a mass influx of startups and new or expanded outposts of major established brands such as Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Dropbox, and others.
That reputation has attracted people looking to make inroads in tech and presented them with many new opportunities, including at Argo.
“I was looking for somewhere I could stay and grow, and I found a job posting for Argo in a local Facebook group, Austin Digital Jobs,” says Zbeda, who joined as a Test Specialist in October 2020. “I didn’t really know what I was walking into, but I was lucky enough to get it and fell in love with it while I was training.”
Zbeda grew up in the San Diego, California, area, and like a rising number of young adult Americans, did not pursue a college degree, instead going straight to the working world after high school through a number of part time and contract positions. She says Argo’s Test Specialist job appealed to her both because of the prospect of full-time employment and benefits, but also because of the novelty of the position and the company’s technology itself.
“I’d rather work for a company like Argo that goes to the nines and tens on safety,” Zbeda says. “It’s about the morals of it too, and working for a higher purpose.”
Getting highly motivated people like Zbeda in the door is critical for Argo, as the company relies on them to safely test its autonomous vehicle technology, and to offer feedback on how it performs from an Austinite’s point-of-view. At Argo, unlike other tech companies, neither a college degree, nor previous experience in technology is required for the role of Test Specialist, along with other select roles within the company’s Fleet Operations team.
“The experiences [Test Specialists] have in the car, the information they have about what the software feels like and how it interacts with them and the roads, it’s invaluable,” says Kristal Garcia, Argo Test Specialist Training Manager in Austin, who is responsible for taking new recruits through a four-week long Test Specialist Certification Program, which rigorously prepares the trainees for operation in Argo’s self-driving test cars. The program takes trainees through a progression that starts with online coursework that teaches critical driving procedures; then puts them behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle on an Argo test track; and finally, has them ride on public roads for one week with an instructor by their side.
In addition to offering opportunities in tech, Austin is also the seat of Texas’ state government and the home of the University of Texas, creating a range of job opportunities for people in the city, and fueling a vibrant food, arts and nightlife scene that caters to workers and students.
“The elements that helped make the business of tech flourish could not have happened without the culture of the community that attracted smart, talented, creative young professionals who wanted to work at those companies,” Majid says.
The result is a highly dynamic, busy, and mobile city — one that typically embraces new technology with open arms, especially if it helps people get where they need to go for work and for play, or helps them get things they need delivered quickly.
Autonomous vehicles fit well into that venn diagram.
As Majid puts it: “There’s an appetite for innovation where people are willing to try something new and different.”