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The Future of Mobility has Arrived: Riding in a Self-Driving Car

By Kate Sweeney, ARC Content Strategist

Tesla autonomous car

The car’s gull-wing doors flew open, and my team and I hopped inside, a swell of triumphant music and dry-ice underscoring our journey into the future.

It’s all true, every word — except for the dry-ice part. And the music was probably just in my head.

Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is the wave of the very-near future, and competitive regions everywhere, including Atlanta, are preparing their infrastructure to make the most it.

In the city of Atlanta, the North Avenue Smart Corridor’s 18 intersections “talk” with smart, connected vehicles like the one I had just climbed aboard — about things like the timing of stoplights, road closures, and accidents, to optimize traffic flow and safety. Atlanta is one of only three cities worldwide taking part in this Safer Roads program.

ARC: Riding in a Self-Driving Car, 1 of 2

Applied Information Technology’s Bryan Mulligan demonstrates how his connected, semi-autonomous car slows itself down when approaching a slower-moving vehicle, while driving along the North Avenue Smart Corridor.

Still, reading about self-driving cars in your news feed is quite different from standing before one of these high-tech vehicles while an energetic man with a South African accent offers you a ride.

The man was Bryan Mulligan. His company, Applied Information Technology, is a Suwannee-based transportation consulting firm. His ride: a semi-autonomous Model X Tesla.

Nearby, heavy mid-day traffic zoomed up and down North Avenue. Moments from now, we would be part of that traffic, with this car doing most of the steering and the braking. I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous.

Our Connected Future

My ARC colleagues Leslie Langley and Robert Herrig were kind enough to give me the front seat so I could take photos and videos. Leslie and Robert, both planners, peppered Bryan with all sorts of advanced questions about

the implications of this technology on transportation planning, the built environment and so forth.

Me? Well, that’s me you hear in the video, blurting out, “Whoa!”

Robert Herrig and Leslie Langley, planners with ARC
Robert Herrig and Leslie Langley, planners with ARC

Connected cars are able to communicate with each other as well as with smart traffic infrastructure like that installed on this stretch of North Avenue.

Our car knew when a traffic light was about to change, and behaved accordingly. The car is also equipped with

sensors, so it knew when a truck ahead of us slammed on its brakes, and slowed down quickly. All of this is a real game-changer, said Mulligan. “Everything’s connected to everything.”

High Stakes and Big Questions

If I had expected a thrill ride, what this drive actually presented was much milder. In short order, I forgot that a machine was driving as we chatted about the possibilities of transportation that’s connected, electric, and autonomous.

ARC: Riding in a Self-Driving Car, 2 of 2

Applied Information Technology’s Bryan Mulligan demonstrates how traveling in an autonomous vehicle feels natural and even commonplace after just a few minutes, and how his connected vehicle communicates with the technology in the North Avenue Smart Corridor to warn the driver of a changing light.

What will happen to all the gas stations, for instance, in a world where most cars don’t need fuel? What will happen to car ownership if we can summon self-driving vehicles on demand? Will parking lots become obsolete?

It’s a big conversation, with stakes as high as metro Atlanta’s regional competitiveness and our future as a freight and logistics hub.

Recently, ARC convened 300 local lawmakers and transportation experts for ConnectATL, the region’s first-ever summit on the future of mobility. ARC will continue to hold similar events in the months to come, with the goal of helping the region work together to prepare for the new transportation world.

As we talked about all of this, our Tesla steered us safely through traffic, back to where we’d started. I was amazed at how normal it felt, even a little mundane. Just another ordinary leap into the future.