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How Autonomy is Transforming Public Transportation with First Transit's Jeff Peterson

Luke Renner |


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Luke Renner: This is Advanced Autonomy. I’m Luke Renner. Since we've launched the podcast a few weeks ago, we've really been focused on the technical and philosophical aspects of the autonomous vehicle sector. Today, we're gonna do something different and speak with a colleague from one of our strategic partners, First Transit. Jeff Peterson is the director of Autonomous Technology Business Development for First Transit. He leads the company's pursuit and development of autonomous vehicle opportunities. Throughout his career, Jeff has fostered relationships with potential clients to fully understand their needs and develop strategies to achieve their goals.

To this end, he works with operations teams and senior leadership to identify the best solutions for its clients mobility needs. Hi, Jeff. Welcome to the show.

Jeff Peterson: Hi, Luke. Thanks for having me.

Luke Renner: Yeah, we're glad to have you, too. So I thought to get us started, you could tell us a little bit about kind of who you are, and what your background is at First Transit.

Jeff Peterson: Sure. Uh, started at First Transit about five years ago and my primary objective is to assist and provide guidance to current clients and future clients on new mobility service offerings, primarily being automated vehicles.

Luke Renner:For those who might not know who First Transit is, maybe you can tell us about the company, [and] what the pitch is?

Jeff Peterson: Sure. First Transit, at the end of the day, we're a contractor and operator of public transit services, [we have] a few different areas of focus and some sister company as well. But, Yeah, we operate fixed transit service, paratransit, non emergency medical. We have shuttle services for College and University municipalities, as well as corporate clients. We've launched Automated Vehicle Deployments- 10 pilot projects that we've been a part of thus far. So looking into advanced technologies in that space. We have a sister company, First Vehicle Services, that provides fleet vehicle maintenance to municipalities, transit agencies, law enforcement, [and] Fire Department.

So really, if it has wheels and or an engine, it's of interest to us. We maintain over 30,000 pieces of equipment within First Vehicle Services, and then as well for Student is a sister company. So operating traditional yellow school buses, providing transit to and from school for children.

Luke Renner: So a couple of weeks ago, First Transit and Cyngn announced their official partnership. If you could indulge me and log roll a little bit, why do you think Cyngn was a good fit for First Transit?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. I think it allows us the opportunity to expand our expertise and partnership in the autonomous mobility space. There are certainly the projects that we've been involved in thus far have been focused on passenger movement, but there's certainly a whole nother area that is not related to passenger movement. And so Cyngn’s experience in both areas is relevant to us. And there are clients that we have that may be more goods movement focused. And this is another opportunity and technology that we can present to them, whether it's airports and cargo and goods movement ports, or warehouse and fulfillment centers.

Luke Renner: As you talk to your clients and prospects about autonomous vehicles or autonomous mobility, what are you hearing out in the field? Are people excited for this technology? Are they ready for it to come? Do they feel like it's still a long ways away? 

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. I think we're certainly seeing an evolution. I think with most of the deployments of late, there's at least some familiarity with automated vehicles and automated technology. There still is an element of community engagement and education that goes along with that. But we're seeing a number of transit authorities or municipalities that are getting more sophisticated with the AV projects that they're looking at and exploring and moving beyond just demonstrating the capabilities of the technology, but actually looking at it as a viable means of providing a mobility service.

Luke Renner: Yeah, and so at this stage, do you have clients that are, you know, running autonomous vehicles in their fleet? Are you still mainly in the pilot project phase? How is it going?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. Primarily in the pilot phase. And I think an element of that is certainly related to the funding and financial aspects of things. But Yeah, for the most part in pilot phases.

Luke Renner: Are there any projects that you're particularly excited about that you'd like to talk about?

Jeff Peterson: We have a project that's launching in Rochester, Minnesota, here in the next month or so. And that is connecting a medical facility in the downtown area to lodging and some other points of interest downtown.

Luke Renner: Is that monitored by someone sitting in the vehicle or the intention?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. The vehicles will have an onboard attendant just for the overall safety. But also where we sit today with regard to regulatory and legislative issues, there has to be an onboard attendant.

Luke Renner: How are you thinking about the regulations?

Jeff Peterson: In some regards it’s a hindrance from the standpoint. There's no cohesive consistent federal directive with regard to automated vehicles. In some cases, that leads the States to make decisions that could be beneficial in the short term because they may be willing to be more aggressive or flexible with potential deployments. I think certainly there's a bit of a challenge from the standpoint. It's hard to recognize and realize a return on investment of an automated vehicle when there still is a driver on board. So that poses another element and challenge to things.

Luke Renner: So with regard to the Rochester, Minnesota, projects, are those buses operating on public streets, or will they have their own dedicated routes?

Jeff Peterson: They'll be operating on public routes in mixed traffic?

Luke Renner: Wow. Okay. So that's a fairly advanced use case, but that's exciting.

Jeff Peterson: Definitely. Yeah.

LUKE RENNER. I want to widen the scope a little bit and just talk about the future of mobility more broadly. You mentioned that one of the trends we're seeing is that people are using many different ways to reach their destination, you know, driving to a car lot and then perhaps taking public transportation. I'm wondering, as you're speaking with your clients and as you're working with cities all across the country, what are you hearing in terms of how they expect transportation as we know it to continue to evolve over the next five or 10 years?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah, I think it's really a matter of how can it be convenient for the passengers? Convenient in terms of service quality and service reliability.  But as more and more potential mobility modes come into play, how can that journey planning and fair collection? How can that be sophisticated enough to make it easy for the passengers? So that's certainly something that we’re involved and engaged in throughout our business models and throughout conversations with clients.

Luke Renner: Yeah. Interesting. You know, one of the benefits that our customers certainly have when they use our technology is they get access to a lot of analytics and a lot of data about how their vehicles are operating in their particular domain. And so my question for you is, how are your clients working with data? Are they collecting data? Has it been integrated into their sort of transportation operations?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. No, they're certainly using data and much as mobility modes are evolving and becoming more sophisticated, we're also seeing the usage and need for data increasing. Um, I think initially it's looked at for route planning and service optimization. But there are also opportunities to leverage data for training efforts, for security potential, and also to investigate and review incidents or accidents if they occur.

Luke Renner: Yeah. And How's First Transit using data with your clients, like, are you guys gathering data? Are you using it for specific purposes?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah, we capture data on all the vehicles that we operate, primarily for ourselves.  We utilize that to assist with fleet management and fleet maintenance, assisting in areas such as predictive maintenance and things of that nature.

Luke Renner:Ok.

Jeff Peterson: But at the same time, we're aware of other solutions and tools and partners that can help transit authorities with the data elements that they're looking for and the challenges they're looking to address.

Luke Renner: Is there a certain kind of information that you guys are looking to get more access to as you go forward as new data collection technologies come online? 

Jeff Peterson: Um. I mean I think as it relates to that preventative maintenance piece, just anything that you know, obviously, electric vehicles are gonna be more and more prevalent. So how can we start to capture data on those assets and understand the maintenance requirements? Our understanding where we sit today is obviously EVs, or the expectation is they have lower maintenance requirements. But what does that, you know, really look like? What does that really mean when you have a 40 foot electric bus that's operating on a fixed route service?

Luke Renner: If one of the primary services you provide is maintenance, does that concern you as fleets start shifting over to a potentially lower maintenance vehicle?

Jeff Peterson: Um no, I don't think so. I mean, there's still going to be maintenance aspects to them. I think they're going to evolve and change. It's not going to be necessarily rebuilding an internal combustion engine, obviously. But at some point in time, if the batteries need to be replaced, what is that process entail?  You know those aspects, the things that engage with the road, wheels, traffic windshields are going to break from time to time and other needs like that.

Luke Renner: So I want to shift over to safety, because one of the things that I find really interesting about the transportation space is that it's actually become safer over time. And I wonder if you have any thoughts about why that is or how your organization has contributed to the increased safety of the people you serve?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. Certainly. And safety is definitely one of the core values that First Transit lives by and is a part of all of our operations and all of our different modes of transit that were engaged in from training and ongoing resources for staffing. But also as we've touched on a little bit, certainly, as things evolved, there are technologies that exist to aid and assist with safety. And so there are different things that we're deploying and or testing in our different operations, whether it's collision avoidance systems, emergency braking, rollover avoidance, things of that nature.

So certainly leveraging technology where we can to assist our operators and enhance our safety overall.

Luke Renner: Yeah. How does one prevent a vehicle from rolling over?

Jeff Peterson: It's Yaw avoidance. And typically it comes into play when turning around a corner. So just managing that process with speed, turning, radius breaking things of that nature, again, providing aid and assistance to the driver.

Luke Renner: So one of the things that's been in the headlines a lot lately is just how difficult it's been for businesses to staff up. We've been seeing this in retail, the food industry. I'm wondering if first, transit and the transportation sector more broadly are dealing with any Labor shortages and whether that's creating challenges for your organization?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. No. Driver shortages is certainly something that we deal with and manage and see as a challenge again, across all of our lines of business, whether it's transit or student. And I think, yeah, as you mentioned, that mirrors some of the challenges in other industries, long haul trucking package delivery, whatever the case may be. So it's certainly something that we deal with and we manage in our business.

Luke Renner: So what are you doing to deal with or manage it?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. I think there are certainly different recruiting efforts and programs that were engaged and involved in technical schools as a source of candidates, potentially. And then part of our interest in the automated vehicle space is long term once Level five arrives.

Luke Renner: And by Level five, you mean full autonomy? 

Jeff Peterson: Yup. But that may be a means to help chip away at some of those driver shortage challenges as well.

Luke Renner: Yeah. So to your point, autonomy is definitely going to shore up some of those Labor shortages. But also, as that technology begins to be deployed more broadly across industry and across transportation, I think the nature of work is really going to shift. Whereas before a driver would be primarily responsible for his or her vehicle, that role may shift to either take on a different task or perhaps manage the mobility of more than one vehicle at a time. Has First Transit thought through about how work is going to change as autonomous vehicle technology becomes more sophisticated?

Jeff Peterson: Definitely. Yeah. And I think there, yeah. That focus of the individual that currently is sitting in a seat behind the wheel, I think will more evolve and change in a lot of environments, as opposed to completely be removed. A shuttle that's operating at a medical facility or a hospital campus, for example, that individual may move and their focus may not be 100%  on driving, but more engaging with the passengers and providing assistance with boarding and lighting the vehicle, securing any mobility devices, things of that nature. And then, similarly, I think for some of our, think of an airport operation or a University shuttle, that individual may not be behind the wheel, but they could be managing or overseeing multiple vehicles in a teleoperation environment, for example.

Yeah. I think more so retraining and repurposing of staffing and what their roles look like today will evolve and change.

Luke Renner: Do you think autonomy will lead to layoffs?

Jeff Peterson: No, I don't think so. I mean, again, specifically to the driver role, I think that we're currently at a scenario where, or a reality where there are shortages of drivers currently today. So again, I think it's more a repurposing and repositioning of those staff resources and being able to be more efficient with them, as opposed to leading the way off.

Luke Renner: So I want to shift to the future. How do you imagine transportation is going to look like in, say, 5 or 10 years?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. I guess I think the biggest thing that we're seeing right now and still in the infancy to an extent, is a move to electrification. And so that's something that we're actively assisting and working to participate with our clients on. It's no small task for a transit authority to acquire buses and then have the appropriate infrastructure to be able to maintain their operations and their fleet when they convert to electric. So I think there's still some, some time before that gets to a point where it's several hundred buses for some of the larger transit authorities. But we're seeing that interest level and that desire to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

So I think that's something and certainly in the autonomy space, EV and AV has a very nice synergy, and I see that continuing to play a part.

Luke Renner: How did the cost of electrification compare to just regular old vehicles? Are they quite a bit more expensive? Is it a huge financial undertaking to shift your fleet?

Jeff Peterson: Where we see it today, yeah, vehicles are a bit more expensive. I think there are some cost savings from the maintenance and upkeep side of things. The mindset where we are today is electric vehicles will have a lower maintenance cost, so that provides some cost savings or return on investment in that regard. But I think similar to AV, some of the EV deployments are a handful of buses and only a fraction of an entire fleet. So a little bit more work to be done to understand the true significance and impact of an entire fleet.

Luke Renner: How urgently are fleet owners making the transition to electric vehicles?

Jeff Peterson: You know, most city, municipality and or transit authority across North America is looking at it and has an interest in it. And then the approach to how they actually deploy that is going to differ. Some are looking at when it comes time to replace a bus or a similar asset at that point in time, they convert it to an electric vehicle. So that's a part of it. And that also provides some flexibility to ramp up the infrastructure required for electric vehicles. 

Luke Renner: Yeah. Absolutely. I want to ask you a similar question about autonomy. Let's say the autonomous vehicle technology today was perfect and was ready for launch. How long do you think it would take before we would see this being rolled out, to say, most of the country. Is it going to take 5 years? Is it going to take decades?

Jeff Peterson: Yeah. That's a good question. And I certainly look at things from the public transit side of things, obviously so not taking into account robo taxis and things that some of these folks are doing. I think there are some locations and some applications, in all honesty, that could be deployed right now. And I'm thinking of bus rapid transit lines, for example, or at least the vast majority of a BRT route could be automated today. There may be some points where it's relevant for the operator to maintain control.

So I think those environments could happen sooner and then still will more than likely be some time before a fixed route bus is operating fully autonomously down a city street like LA or New York.

LUKE RENNER. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's exactly why we are focused on autonomy related to industrial use cases, right? The barrier to entry is much lower. These are things we can get set up right away. These are technologies that are available and safe and scalable now, which I think isn't exactly true of public transportation as it relates to autonomy, we’re still a few years off.

Jeff Peterson: Exactly. Yeah, you know, and in those environments, typically, they're categorized as private roadways and have a little bit more leeway with regard to that onboard attendant, and certainly can leverage that aspect of things from the ROI standpoint.  You know, if you're moving goods or materials around the location.

Luke Renner: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Jeff, I really appreciate this. This was interesting. Thanks for your time.

Jeff Peterson: No, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For more 15-minute conversations on the future of autonomy, subscribe to the Advanced Autonomy Podcast wherever you get your podcasts.


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