Just nine months ago, autonomous vehicle (AV) startup Beep launched in Lake Nona, FL. The 64,000-person community was introduced to the advanced technology of self-driving vehicles through the Move Nona program, an autonomous shuttle service to transport residents and visitors from the town's Pixon building to the Village center.
By February, the company had expanded operations to Peoria, AZ for the city's Robo Ride program — a partnership that proved the startup's viability outside of its home state of Florida. Yet momentum around the company's growth was briefly shaken by the onset of COVID-19 in March.
Beep is in the business of moving people, Chief Marketing Officer Racquel Asa told Smart Cities Dive. But despite this philosophy, the company made a strategic operational shift to moving goods to assist its local communities in crisis mitigation.
In March, Beep partnered with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) and AV solutions company NAVYA to autonomously transport COVID-19 tests from a drive-thru testing site to a processing laboratory on the Mayo Clinic's Florida campus. The program allowed Beep to repurpose its technology and fleets amid temporary suspensions of its traditional services, while allowing healthcare workers to "stay where they need to be, and that’s on the front line," Asa said.
What does this new business opportunity mean for Beep and the greater AV industry? Smart Cities Dive caught up further with Beep CEO Joe Moye to learn how COVID-19 has influenced his leadership and how regulations and new partnerships may potentially shape the company's success.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: In reflection of your partnership with JTA, how do you think the pandemic will shape the AV landscape?
JOE MOYE: Any time you can remove a human driver from any level of interaction — given the sensitivity to social distancing and things of that nature — it’s obviously going to reduce the risk of any type of transmission. We take one level of risk away.
The other thing that I think is going to be really important is, beyond just moving people, what are some of the key hazardous materials that could be potentially moved around without human interaction? So taking away that one layer of interaction, we think, is certainly going to be a driver — no pun intended — for advancement of these AVs.
As we get back on the road, we’re taking a lot of measures to do the things necessary to disinfect the shuttles after every leg of every trip, and obviously doing everything possible to give our riders a very safe and comfortable experience on the shuttle.
PAVE recently released a poll finding most Americans think AV tech is ‘not ready for primetime.’ What are your thoughts on this, and what is Beep doing to educate riders?
MOYE: First and foremost, it’s important for the adoption of AVs to start in these lower-speed use cases, which is kind of the market we focus on. There’s a reason that we entered the market at that level. That is where these vehicles are going to be most safe. Although they are operating in very complex environments with mixed traffic and pedestrians and the like, they’re traveling at less than 20 mph. That does in fact limit the risk of the types of accidents that would occur in those environments.
Proving out these technologies in these controlled speed, geofenced use cases takes a lot of the risk away. Frankly, we found in our rider adoption surveys and feedback that people who were apprehensive about getting on these vehicles, once they got on the vehicles, they were educated about the technology and they’d seen the experience.
The adoption level in our community in Lake Nona has been beyond what we had ever expected, moving 14,000 passengers in our first five months of operating a single route. We have attendants on-board these shuttles at the start because we want riders to feel comfortable with the experience. When we migrate attendants off the shuttles in the future, it’s going to be after everyone in these various communities that have used these platforms are comfortable, safe and secure.
How do you address concerns that more safety development of AV tech is needed?
MOYE: There’s a lot of things that are going on with the private sector and into the public sector. We’re part of a data exchange with NHTSA, for example, where we as autonomous suppliers are sharing all the information on how these shuttles operate in various scenarios, how they react to certain situations, how they react to various obstacles and how we improve the platforms to address certain experiences.
There’s no better way to prove it out than to have AVs on the streets in those situations where you’re taking those learnings then applying them to improvements on the platform. We’re pushing platform providers to modify and enhance the software to ultimately learn from these various interactions they have and apply those to how the platform operates in the future.
How does potential AV consolidation influence the decisions you make at Beep in terms of the operations and the services you offer?
MOYE: A lot of the large OEM [original equipment manufacturer] players are starting to kind of embrace initiatives, or advance investments in initiatives like what GM is doing, and others … I guess the fact they use the phrase "robo-taxi," you think of it as anywhere, anytime, any speed AVs.
These driver-assist technologies that you’re seeing out there in the likes of Tesla, where cars on highway scenarios can operate pretty efficiently — staying within the lines and keeping a distance from another vehicle in front of them — frankly, those situations are easier to manage and mitigate than going in a neighborhood and having to assess what’s happening at a crosswalk or at an interaction.
"[E]verybody’s trying to race to that anywhere, anytime, any speed robo-taxi model. And I will tell you it’s probably going to be a decade before those vehicles are launched in a scenario where they can go anywhere, anytime, any speed."
In a lot of ways, frankly, we’re seeing a lot of the big investment consolidation happening at the top end of that market where everybody’s trying to race to that anywhere, anytime, any speed robo-taxi model. And I will tell you it’s probably going to be a decade before those vehicles are launched in a scenario where they can go anywhere, anytime, any speed.
We believe that the point of the spear is: How do you prove out these technologies and platforms in these more complex scenarios of navigating communities and roadways, where you have to be much more perceptive than just using camera technologies to stay in the lane and keep a distance?
Certainly you’re going to see more consolidation. At CES this year, the autonomous section of that is larger than anything out there. A lot of folks are racing to the space, but we believe it’s going to be proven out in the front end of the marketplace we serve, so I’m pretty comfortable with our position there.
What are your thoughts on federal regulations on AVs? What do you hope to see on a federal level in the future?
MOYE: I would stand behind the federal groups, the U.S. DOT in particular, in saying they do focus very much on safety.
I think the challenge is that, moving any type of regulations that are in many cases decades old about how vehicles operate (the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are the best example), they don't take into account that in an AV, you don’t need rear-view mirrors, you don’t need a steering wheel, you don’t need certain visibility across the width of a windshield — all the fragments of specific requirements for vehicles that are road-worthy in the U.S.
It takes years to change that legislation. They’re taking some measures through various things they can do in allowing these vehicles to be tested out and proven out.
I’ve been really pleased with the level of engagement that we’ve had with NTSA and DOT, as far as helping to advance the testing of AVs. It’s the government, you can never move fast enough ... But I think working with them and sharing the information — like we’re doing on the proving out of the safety of these vehicles to ultimately get to the point where they’re comfortable in these certain operating domains that they provide an equivalent level of safety to be FMVSS standards — we think that’s the solution, working together to get to that point.
What are you excited for most at Beep? What can we expect to see from you this year?
MOYE: We’re headquartered [in Florida] because it is very friendly to AVs. Also with the level of service we provide, we didn't want to disperse ourselves geographically on day one. We wanted to build a concentration of customers where we were able to provide teams at a very short distance necessary to support these deployments.
What we’re excited about is the visibility that we’ve gotten on some of these programs, frankly because we have taken a much more heightened focus on safety than some others have. Developing your safety programs, creating standards around how you operate these vehicles, creating standards for how the passengers need to be seated — everything necessary to ensure good rider experience but most importantly ensure their safety — that’s drawn a lot of attention to us as a business. As such, we’re starting to get a pretty great level of growth in new projects that we’re taking on in Florida and elsewhere.
We’re starting to partner up with some key technologies in the marketplace to help prove out new components of the platform, whether that be a new LiDAR or some software that does fleet management and optimization. So we’re starting to evolve from just being a service provider to being a technology integrator that’s going to be able to bring a best-of-breed solution to our customers