You Can Learn a Lot in Just Half a Mile

May 26, 2022

For Toyota Financial Services’ Strategic Innovation team, launching a pilot shuttle program provides real-world learning and a chance to expand its line of mobility as a service products

It’s a half mile trek from the newest satellite parking lot to the hospital front doors at Children’s Medical Center Plano. For those with limited mobility or staff making the daily march after a long shift, it could simply be half a mile too long to walk. It probably wasn’t anyone’s first choice to locate the interim parking so far away, especially given the area’s often volatile weather, but as Children’s Medical Center began planning construction for an expansion project, the hospital was forced to close a large portion of its staff and visitor parking. This left hospital leadership with the challenge of getting staff and others to and from the new remote parking facility safely and efficiently.

But as with any new challenge, of course, comes opportunity. For Children’s Medical Center, they saw this as a chance to pilot all-electric autonomous vehicles (AV) on the 155-acre campus. The service would not only provide a pleasant and convenient shuttle service for staff and visitors, but it would do so while reducing carbon emissions and traffic congestion.

This past December, in collaboration with Toyota Financial Services’ (TFS) Strategic Innovation (SI) team EasyMile, (the shuttle’s manufacturer) and Spare Labs (the provider the Driver app and tracking technology) the employees at Children’s Medical Center began taking their first rides in the autonomous shuttle, which now number approximately 25 roundtrips per day.

Developing the wrap around services required for AV programs

Just as Toyota is the global leader in bringing new and pioneering mobility products to market, TFS is leading the way to ensure everyone has access to such products, even beyond those developed by Toyota. TFS is working on a plug-and-play solution to fill the mobility as a service gap that exists in the market today. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and tech companies provide the product, various hardware, software, or data analytics to develop autonomous vehicles. But none are looking to provide a platform that allows for the complete management and operation of financing sales and leasing, fleet management, servicing, and integration with on-demand service platforms.

The SI team has been working on a set of capabilities currently known as ‘SI Transit’. SI Transit is MaaS-focused with a goal of enhancing the mobility options for seniors and paratransit riders while comingling services where possible with other riders.

There are three major components to SI Transit:

  1. A Mobility Aggregator enabling an end-user to see all potential ride options to the desired destination, making mobility much more accessible to more customers.
  2. A Fleet Manager providing software-as-a-service allowing transportation companies to access tools that provide trip optimization, scheduling, and access to a demand-platform.
  3. Transportation Service Provider supplying services directly to consumers and businesses to fill mobility gaps and enhance access to quality rides while monetizing the service.

No better substitute for real-world learning

With an eye on Toyota’s autonomous vehicles like e-Palette, and Sienna AutonoMaaS, or it’s fully connected ecosystem, Woven City, on the horizon, SI saw the opportunity to partner with a manufacturer deploying AV vehicles where they could watch the pilot program unfold in a nearby and controlled setting.

“While this is a small test for AV functionality,” notes Ajey Devaraj, Strategic Innovation Manager at TFS, “it brings together many of the key elements that would be required for a larger deployment. This AV service model allows us to test a new Mobility Service in a low-risk, low-cost environment.” 

There are three main learning objectives:

  • To better understand the capabilities required for launching and operating a AV service, including customer-facing technology and operations, to prepare for Toyota’s future mobility products.
  • Expand our understanding of the digital ecosystem required to deploy the AV service through Customer, Driver, and Fleet Management technologies.
  • Obtaining Voice of the Customer which will be key as the concept is so new to riders. Gaining rider trust, acceptance, and a fuller understanding of their expectations of quality, will drive future program enhancements and increase adoption rates.

To put it simply, the long-term objective of the Children’s Medical Center Plano AV POC is to grow SI Transit’s services into a profitable and scalable business model that can be replicated at additional locations and expanded to new customers.

Project partners are leaders in AV transport and ride-hailing services

Founded in 2014, EasyMile has acquired considerable experience in the electric AV space in countries around the world and including several other Texas locations.  And it was particularly important to SI that they pilot a program leveraging a wheel-chair capable vehicle and with partners who could help provide a fully inclusive service.

The EZ10 was also a key choice for SI as it provides an opportunity to work with “Level 4 Vehicle Autonomy”, meaning that the vehicle does not require human interaction in most situations, although a human driver has the option of manual override of the vehicle’s operations and features at any time. The EZ10 shuttle at Children’s Medical Center is configured for six seated passengers with seatbelts and one vehicle operator. It travels at a top speed of 12mph and can run on a single charge for eight hours with climate controls in use, or up to 16 hours without.

While getting from the remote parking facility to the hospital may seem straightforward at first glance, there was an extensive evaluation of the route by EasyMile’s deployment engineers who identified and documented all potential risks and mitigation strategies along the proposed route.

After the evaluation, several modifications were made to accommodate the requirements and functionality of the EZ10 shuttle. For example, the pickup/drop off locations were designed to the particular traffic patterns along the route, additional route markings and signage were added, and approaches to intersections were improved.

Additionally, EasyMile provided training for maintenance mechanics and on-board drivers known as Customer Service Ambassadors (CSA.) Currently, a CSA is present on all shuttle trips during the POC phase.

Another essential player behind the scenes is Spare Labs. Spare Labs is the technology backbone of the CRM data. SI worked with Spare Labs to develop the tech to track the vehicle’s travel data such as special needs, usage numbers, tracking travel and stop times, etc. The data is provided to SI and Children’s allowing for constant improvements to the service.

Microtransit planning is key to mass transit improvements

Whether by bus, subway, commuter rail, streetcar, ferry boat, paratransit, heavy rail, or shuttle bus, public transport systems across the U.S. provide 10 billion commuter, leisure, non-emergency medical, and specialized trips each year. But for many, it’s a lack of “first mile/last mile” transportation that prevents would-be riders from using public transportation.

Microtransit helps meet the transportation needs of communities where short-distance travel could significantly benefit residents and local business. Currently, most private-sector microtransit vehicles are employed on fixed routes. They may offer riders a stress-free and comfortable travel option between a distant parking lot and an airport terminal or a mall entrance, or across college campuses and business parks. There is a fast-growing number of public/private partnerships providing microtransit vehicles in the hope of connecting entire communities, enabling residents to live, work, and play in their neighborhoods without the need for personal vehicles.

In fact, Children’s Health is considering expanding its program to its main campus in Dallas, as well as the nearby UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Parkland Pediatric Primary Care Center.

And they’re not alone. The City of Plano is watching the pilot program at Children’s Medical Center as it considers broadening microtransit opportunities in areas such as heavy retail districts. And two California-based hospitals have reached out to TFS in hopes of replicating the program’s success on their campuses. Bringing the right elements together, leveraging Toyota’s reputation for quality and attention to detail, TFS is proving the program can be scaled to seamlessly meet the customer’s needs and generate customer demand.

“With the success of this initiative,” notes Devaraj, “an exciting question for the SI team will be, how soon can we expand from closed courses to semi-public or public roads and, ultimately, what does our SI Transit comprehensive service look like as we acquire new clients and partnerships?”