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The future of mobility gets spotlight at inaugural Tandon-VectoIQ Tech Talks at the New York Auto Show

auto show panel

Professor and C2SMART deputy director Joseph Chow (far right) moderated a panel on disruptive technologies that are redefining urban mobility at the New York International Auto Show.  Photo credit: A.J. Sanon

Cars and trucks are the stars at the New York International Auto Show, but — thanks to a first-ever event hosted by NYU Tandon and mobility firm VectoIQ — bikes, scooters, autonomous car-sharing, and the future of smart-cities mobility shared the spotlight too.

The inaugural Tandon-VectoIQ Tech Talks @ the New York International Auto Show, presented at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on Thursday, April 19, travelled beyond traditional four-wheeled conveyances to explore apps, data streams from vehicles and other sources, and corollary technologies that, combined with self-driving vehicles, electrification infrastructure, and emerging social trends, promise to change how we commute and travel.

The event, co-sponsored by C2SMART (Connected Cities with Smart Transportation), a Tier 1 University Transportation Center at NYU Tandon, commenced with an energetic morning panel. Moderated by C2SMART deputy director Joseph Chow, professor of urban and civil engineering at NYU Tandon, the panel honed in on disruptive technologies that are redefining urban mobility. Kaan Ozbay, director of C2SMART and professor of civil engineering was featured in a later session. One of the world’s top experts in modeling large-scale complex transportation systems, Ozbay was recently chosen by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to serve on a blue-ribbon panel exploring the replacement of a 1.5-mile stretch of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

The morning panel steered by Chow featured Caroline Sampanaro, director of Lyft’s Motivate, the bike and scooter-share company that Lyft acquired last year; Su Sanni, founder of DollarRide, a “dollar van” mobility application for communities underserved by transit and a member of the NYU Tandon Future Labs; and Henry Greenidge, of technology company Cruise Automation, which is developing systems for adapting autonomous vehicles for ride sharing.

Sanni said DollarRide aims to make dollar vans — an urban cottage industry in the transit sphere — easier to hail through an app-based location and access system. He said the company focuses on a market opportunity to which most New Yorkers are oblivious. “Over 120,000 New Yorkers use dollar vans, which have been around for over 30 years,” he said. “Yet most New Yorkers don’t know what they are because they serve mostly in outer boroughs in traditionally low-income areas.”

He said DollarRide’s own research shows that more than 600,000 New Yorkers live in areas defined as transit deserts, and that, while NYC has one of the largest public transit infrastructures in the word, hundreds of thousands of people live more than half a mile from a subway.

Founded in 2013 in San Francisco, Cruise Automation is looking to launch the first sustainable driverless ride-share company. Greenidge said self-driving vehicles are key to programs like NYC’s own Vision Zero initiative to reduce pedestrian and bicycle fatalities caused by cars and trucks. “We are seeing ‘Vision Zero’ initiatives all over the country, which is no surprise,” he said. “There are over 37,000 deaths from car crashes each year and over a million injuries. That’s part of what we are trying to address. I see a future in which major urban markets have autonomous, riderless rideshare services to safely navigate streets, with no carbon emissions.”

Samporano, head of bicycle, scooter and pedestrian policy at Lyft/Motivate — the country’s largest bike share provider — said the mission of the company is to use mobile technology to motivate people to get out of cars and onto bike and scooter saddles.

“We are most known for our rideshare business, but in the last year we have been working to build an offering in shared bikes and scooters,” she said. “This is an exciting moment for the country. We spent the last century building cars into all aspects of our lives. But over the next decade we will see us undoing that to a large extent,” she predicted.

In November the company made a large investment in and expansion of the New York Citibike program, which she said has achieved 75 million rides to date — “a growth curve that paralleled the expansion of bike lane networks.” This year, said Sampanaro, the company is expanding Citibike to Queens, the Bronx, and areas of Brooklyn where it hasn’t been before.

During the second panel, moderated by Stephen Girsky, Managing Partner of VectoIQ and former Vice Chairman of General Motors, Ozbay noted that the center’s key mission is using the terabytes of data from vehicles and fixed sensors to create meaningful urban mobility models

“There are tremendous amounts of data being collected by vehicles and devices constantly,” he said. “Our goal is to take that data and show how to make it actionable, to help make traffic systems work better and safer — for example, using data to identify high-risk safety locations.

"This represents something of a data ‘black hole’ challenge: There is a lot of data coming in but how do you get it out and make it useful. C2SMART is working to put data in one place and make it actionable for many different players.” (Currently, C2SMART is working on a project called NYC CV Pilot, involving 8,000 connected vehicles running several applications. When the project launches, the cars will be talking to infrastructure and to each other.)

Carmera is a high-definition mapping service provider and one of the few autonomous vehicle tech companies in NYC. Carmera Co-Founder and CEO Ro Gupta said the startup provides mechanisms for making on-board navigation systems dynamic.

“Almost all autonomous vehicle maps work like railroad maps. Our challenge is keeping maps fresh and up to date to reflect real-time changes in traffic and conditions that impact on travel.

There is no better place than New York City to test your technology because it is such a dynamic, chaotic environment.”

Thanks to industry and academic leaders like those at the event, NYC may soon also be a much better environment in which to get around.