Reimagining Public Buses in the Age of Uber

Steven Cherry Hi this is Steven Cherry, for Radio Spectrum.

A thread on Reddit once started:

“So I recently got a job offer that is about 15 miles away from where I live. I don’t have a car so I’m planning on commuting by bus, however the commute is estimated to last anywhere from 70-85 minutes. This is my first post-grad job … I really need the experience. However, I’m wondering if it is worth it … two hours a day just in my commute.”

Metropolises like London, Tokyo, and New York are built up on a backbone of subways and rail transit. But in much of the world, people without cars travel by bus. And that’s a problem, if a 15-mile commute takes five times as many minutes.

Marchetti’s Constant, named after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, is the average time people spend on their daily commute, which is approximately a half hour each way, all around the world. The average U.S. commute is about 27 minutes, up 8 percent from a decade earlier. But that averages people who walk 10 minutes to work with people who drive an hour; it averages people who have a quick subway ride and people taking two or three buses that run only infrequently.

In the mid-2000s, the megacity of São Paulo developed a system of buses making limited stops and with their own lanes that my colleague Erico Guizzo wrote about in 2007. It’s a scheme that perhaps made sense 15 years ago, trying to combine the best of highway transport with the best of rail transit.

But in the mind of another Italian physicist who has turned his attention and his career to transportation, we now have enough computing power—smartphones, AI, and the cloud—for a different kind of solution.

My guest today, Tommaso Gecchelin, is a physicist and industrial designer. After studying quantum mechanics in Padua, Italy, and industrial design in Venice, he co-founded something called NEXT Future Transportation. For the past seven years there he has been developing a system of bus pods, one that in effect chops up a bus into car-sized pieces and has the potential to combine the best of commuter buses with the best of Uber. He joins me via Skype.

Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Tommaso Gecchelin Thank you very much. Thank you for having me here.

Steven Cherry Tom “chopping up a bus into car sized pieces” is my characterization of this system. Why don’t you describe it yourself?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, we would describe them like a very short section of a bus that can dock together, forming a longer unit. So it’s like a train when where all the cars can drive themselves. They can be independent. They can be like cars or like taxis when they are alone. And when they join together, they can form a bus. But the most important thing is that they communicate with each other physically. So when they are connected, the doors open in between. So basically, they create something that we call a “stopless station” because the passengers can freely walk between the one unit and the other internally without the need for the entire bus to stop, to drop off, and pick them up again.

Steven Cherry So they’re a little bit longer than a Smart car. They’re self-driving. They have doors at either end. They communicate with one another and their passengers constantly. They mate up at highway speeds so smoothly that you can walk from one to the other. And they know who needs to get where and which pod needs to connect with which potentially hundreds of pods and tens of thousands of people, maybe twenty-four hours a day. What could possibly go wrong?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes. It seems like a very complicated thing but actually we try to simplify lots of the project from the start of it to now. And for example, what we are trying to do now, it’s to focus on the docking procedure and the modularity of the system instead of being too focused on the self-driving because the self-driving part, it’s most difficult thing to do, and it’s the most difficult also to certify and to be legal on the road at the moment.

Steven Cherry We’re going to get to all of that, but let me first ask what the experience will be like. As I understand it, I’m sitting at home in the morning getting ready for work. My phone tells me a pod has arrived; I get on; the system, figures out that another pod is going to go near my destination. It determines where the two pods should connect. My phone alerts me when that moment is near and tells me which pod to switch to because there may be several connected at this train like way at this point. Am I picturing this correctly?

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. The only difference is that it’s very likely that you don’t have more than two pods docked together at the same time. Because generally the first mile, it’s covered by one pod that picks you up alone like a taxi that you call. And then afterward, when you’re merging into main roads, it docking to another pod, that generally is already almost full because they have done the same thing again and again. So you just walk to the port that has already few people inside. So you leave your pod completely empty and your pod will detach and go to pick up other people. So it’s like a relay race.

Steven Cherry And from the central city in the afternoon, back to the suburbs, it would be the same in reverse.

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. Generally, you are not that interested in timing when you are going back to home. So the vehicles will split with ten people inside, then they will do two or three stops before you get home. So you don’t need to get home completely alone. That’s a slight difference from the beginning of the trip in the morning.

Steven Cherry Yes. And that’s in the central city model, people leave for work at very different times, but frequently they leave work at pretty close to the same time. So it is a little different in that respect. I’m wondering, does your modeling tell you—if I have, say, in my own car, a maybe a half-hour commute—with the pods connecting and multiple people and perhaps even waiting at a sort of pod bus shelter for a few minutes for my next pod to come, what would be the average transit time? I imagine it would increase a little bit at least.

Tommaso Gecchelin Well, this is the difference. You never have to stop to wait for another pod. The pods always docked together when they are traveling. And if you cannot find another pod traveling in your direction, you will get directly to your destination. Because we want to differentiate our system from traditional buses, to increase the comfort for the passengers. So we absolutely never stop to drop off people at the end to pick up another pod in case they have any connection, let’s say, pod connection, they will dock together—the two pods—and the people would just walk from one to the other. So it’s very different from a bus. The transportation system is built for this feature. And to reply to your question, we did a lot of simulation and roughly, the increase in the travel time is roughly five percent.

Steven Cherry That’s very little. And there is an advantage of not having to park at the destination. So that might actually save that five percent as well.

This depends on a certain amount of scale, I would imagine. And so do you have any thoughts on what the optimum geographies are? Is it as big metropolitan areas with lots of suburbs? What about smaller ones like, say, Pittsburgh … the city has 300,000 people and the metro area is about four times that. And what about cities like Albany, New York, or South Bend, Indiana, which have about 100,000 each.

Tommaso Gecchelin Well, we focus on cities that have very dense downtown, and very sparse suburb areas. So most of the cities in the U.S. are like that. We concentrated also on cities like Dubai that have very concentrated traffic in the main part of the city. Sheikh Zayev Road. So these cities are the most optimizable by our system. And on the other side, European cities vary with fairly homogeneous density of pick-up and drop-off—and so origin and destination matrix. In that case, the optimization level is slightly less.

Steven Cherry Now you first developed a 1:10 scaled prototype and brought it to Dubai, where I guess it was enough of a hit that they had you build two pods to be tested there. And you’ve trialed some key technology pieces: the linking up and the walking from one to the other at speed; the cloud intelligence; the communication to the mobile-device app … Each of these seems like a huge challenge.

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, it was very critical for us to test the vehicle in a 1:1 scale after the 1:10 scale was working. So we convinced the sheik of Dubai to buy two vehicles and up to the very end of the engineering and prototyping phase, we were a little bit afraid about the docking procedure. Then afterwards, it worked perfectly. So every calculation we have done was good. And we have done a very, very good job and good showcase in Dubai.

Steven Cherry Does Dubai’s cities have the kind of density and central city / sparse suburbs that you imagine to be optimal? And do they have any thoughts about building out a complete system for themselves?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, the city of Dubai … It’s perfect for our system, especially because the the destinations are very, very concentrated. For example, Dubai Mall—it’s a destination of very, let’s say punctual, very specific. And on the other hand, you have in almost every house, it’s sparse in the other part of the city that that’s Sharjah [U.A.E.], that it’s like the residential area of Dubai. So we had done a lot of similation, especially in Dubai. And this is optimizing very much the system, the traffic in Dubai.

Steven Cherry Do they have much of a public transport network there now? And more generally, do you envision the system coexisting with transport systems or do you expect it to largely replace them?

Tommaso Gecchelin I think that it will co-exist because it’s not trying to take away passengers from the buses or Metro. They are trying to take out private cars. So, in fact, the system, it’s a little bit more expensive than regular buses, but nonetheless, it’s picking you up at home. So it’s much more similar to a taxi. Let’s say the price tag, it’s in between them and it’s much cheaper than having a car, that private car, and to manage them, to park them. So it’s much more convenient and also cheaper than a car a private car. But at the same time, it’s cheaper than a taxi, even if it’s basically giving you the same service. So at the same time to this destination and the same ubiquity as a taxi.

Steven Cherry In New York, for example, there are single and double buses, sometimes it’s standing room only, but sometimes they’re only carrying a handful of people. When you “chop up a bus” to use my term of maybe 40 or 50 or 80 people into four or six or eight pods, each pod is closer to its capacity. How expensive might five pods end up being compared to, say, a 50-person bus?

Tommaso Gecchelin Five pods will be roughly equivalent to a 12-meter bus. So we are trying to get to the price where five pods will be equivalent also, in terms of the price to an electric bus, a premium electric bus. So this is our goal.

Steven Cherry Just to be clear, a 12-meter bus would have what seating capacity?

Tommaso Gecchelin It really depends if it’s a city bus or an entire city bus. But generally it goes from 50 to 70 people.

Steven Cherry So similar capacity really, because your pods would seat six and have a total capacity of 10.

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. Very comfortably. And they can go up to 15 people—each pod—if you want to have the same density per person—so [the same] people-per-square-meter of a typical city bus.

Steven Cherry A point I haven’t heard in any of the presentations of yours that I’ve watched is that in an all-electric vehicle system, a single pod can go out of service to recharge instead of an entire 50 person or 75 person bus. So only one-fifth of the bus, so to speak, has to go offline.

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. This is a very interesting feature because it’s like having swappable batteries. Because you can swap one pod. So you cut your capacity at that moment by 10 percent or 20 percent instead of the entire capacity of the bus.

Steven Cherry It seems like pods are also going to be much more manageable within the cities than buses—making left turns on narrow streets, parking, pulling over … Bus stops nowadays typically take up one hundred feet of road or sidewalk. There are a lot of things to like about these smaller pods.

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, in fact, that you can park two pods stuck together in the place where you generally put a traditional car.

Steven Cherry I think you know that I teach at New York University’s engineering school as an adjunct professor. There’s an NYU connection to the story, as I understand it.

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, yes. And actually, Joseph Chow featured us in a paper. And afterwards, we started a collaboration with them. And so they are doing a research paper on this modularity and the benefit—that he’s calling “in-route transfer.” So it’s the transfer of the passengers while they are going on the road without stopping. It’s it’s a very interesting collaboration, actually.

Steven Cherry Yes, Chow is the deputy director of C2Smart, which stands for Connected Cities with Smart Transportation. And there was also an important contribution by a graduate student as part of his master’s thesis?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, exactly. Nick Paros as part of the master’s thesis did a great job describing the behavior of our vehicles.

Steven Cherry Tom, what sort of timeline are we on? Do we have to wait for others to perfect the self-driving aspect? Do you have any idea when we would see a full system ready to be built?

Tommaso Gecchelin Well, at the moment, we are doing a lot of studies to understand if the system makes sense before self-driving would be legal. So, for example, when you split the bus, each pod will be driven by one of the passengers. So it’s like a hybrid between Uber and the traditional bus. So our next step is to certify the vehicle in Europe at the moment for European laws—to be road legal in all the public roads. With the driver. So driverless will be the next step, but not right now.

Steven Cherry And in the long run, you envision that these pods could also do package delivery as almost an additional business model?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, they they can do, let’s say, package logistics. But the most interesting thing, it’s to do retail logistics. So not just delivering to you a package like Amazon is doing, but delivering to you the entire retail experience, because each pod can be dressed, can be customized like a room, like a retail store. So when it’s coming to you—or in motion in the future—it will really be a new business line for us. And it will be really the future of retail, especially in this Covid period in which it’s a little bit more frightening to go to the mall.

Steven Cherry Tom, I mentioned at the top of the show your eclectic background. You also paint real paintings that have been featured in art exhibitions. And you’ve written that—and this is a quote of yours—”art reaches the eyes and the heart of the user.” Calling the viewer a user suggests that these are closely related passions for you, art and science and technology. Are they?

Tommaso Gecchelin Absolutely. I always tried to merge them, to mix them, to create something that it’s more than the two parts separated because generally heart … It doesn’t really use the science to get to the point, to get to be fully useful for people. And I’m trying to do something that …  It’s not just expressing myself, but it’s trying to be something really useful, something that it’s doing good for the whole world.

Steven Cherry Well, Tom, I think you’ve come up with an artful, elegant solution to what has been an intractable urban and especially suburban problem. I wish you and the project in boca al lupo.

Tommaso Gecchelin Ah, yes [laughter], in boca al lupo.

Steven Cherry And I thank you for joining me today. Grazie.

Tommaso Gecchelin Prego.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Tomaso Gecchelin, co-founder and CEO of Next Future Transportation, which wants to reimagine Uber as a public transit system, where connecting from one bus to another is as easy as walking from the kitchen to the living room.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

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