Electric and Autonomous Vehicles Lead the Discussion at the Emerging Trends in Transportation Forum

Houston’s need to reimagine its transportation future was the subject of the West Houston Association’s Emerging Trends in Transportation Forum on June 16, 2021. Public and industry leaders in transportation joined in the hour-long discussion moderated by Jim Webb, CEO/President of The Goodman Corp and Chairman of the WHA Regional Mobility Committee. 

“Historically, our conversation is really focused on major capital efforts, things like Hyperloop and high- speed rail,” said Webb. “But more recently, we’ve found ourselves discussing on- the-ground technologies that we’re seeing introduced around us, including electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and better public transportation.  

Of these innovations, electric vehicles (EVs) are at the forefront of the public mind. All forum participants believe EVs will be more widely adopted by consumers as they become more available and as infrastructure for charging them becomes more widely available.  

After many years of development, Kathleen Herbek, Head of Mobility Engagement, Central/Mountain Region for Ford Motor Company said electric vehicles are finally getting traction with the general public. Her team has been researching what the average consumer is looking for in an EV; she’s also trying to increase the visibility of EVs through community partnerships, looking at “the mobility challenges a city or municipality might be facing, and then work with those partners to see if Ford has a product or solution that we’re looking to test with them.” 

Both Herbek and Emily Leung, Vice President of Future Mobility and Electrification for BP, said the industry still has a way to go in designing larger vehicles suitable for public transportation and trucking, but there are a lot of designs in the pipeline. Innovations in battery technology and the development of infrastructure will make a difference in this capacity. 

“One of the things we think about as we’re building up the network is the routes, where are the corridors that people travel on that need additional charging?” said Leung. “So, it’s not just, you put it in the city where the majority of the cars are, you’re actually thinking about who’s driving where?” This could help reduce driver anxiety about tackling the 300- to 400-mile between Houston and Dallas.    

Veronica Davis, Director of Transportation and Drainage for the City of Houston, says the city has made a commitment to transitioning to EVs whenever possible for city workers — although since much of the city’s fleet of 4,000 vehicles are comprised of dump trucks and heavy equipment, a full transition is a long way off. Meanwhile, the city is working to increase the availability of public charging stations for EVs. 

Davis said an area she feels needs work on the federal level is increasing the availability of electric bicycles, or e-bikes. Federal subsidies for e-bikes would help “make biking a lot more accessible for older individuals, people with disabilities, people with kids that want to use any bike as another form of transportation and move people around. And so, I think that’s one thing that’s missing from the federal conversation, in addition to the infrastructure around being able to charge e-bikes.” 

Lainey Shorp of Via discussed the role digital technologies can play in improving and streamlining public transportation and getting it ready for the future. “I can probably confidently say almost every partner that we work with, is talking about EVs in some capacity and in wanting to be a part of their service — at least if not now, then sometime in the future.” 

Another area for growth is autonomous vehicles like the R2 electric delivery vehicle run by Nuro. Community Engagement Manager Dan Mitchell said greater use of autonomous delivery vehicles can reduce cost of local delivery, carry fresh food into underserved areas, and have less environmental impact than traditional vehicles.  

Nuro is already partnered with Kroger, CVS, and Domino’s Pizza for curbside delivery in the Houston area, and has just signed a national partnership agreement with FedEx. 

Mitchell said there were questions at first about the most basic aspects of autonomous delivery, including how customers were going to get their groceries from the curbside to their homes without a driver to help. What they found was that people started bringing out small wagons from their garages to carry their goods. “So people’s behaviors are going to change and this technology is going to become more acceptable,” he said.   

All panelists were optimistic about the future and the promise of electric and autonomous vehicles. Once fully established, these innovations will create cleaner, more sustainable, and more equitable transportation for the people of Greater Houston and beyond.