What is our Ideal Driverless Future?

I recently attended a FHWA Highway Automation Workshop on AV policy and planning (which was fantastic, fyi). At the end of the two-day workshop, we were tasked with a small group activity: Brainstorm our ideal driverless future. Sky is the limit… what does that look like?  It turns out it was the hardest task of the event…. There were representatives attending from cities, states, universities, federal government agencies, transit agencies, and OEMs, and yet, we all stumbled. It really led me to think “how can we get to our ideal driverless future if we can’t even describe what it looks like?”

Of course, it kind of depends on who you ask (based on my cynical mind…):

  • A car manufacturer might suggest that every person owns a driverless vehicle (theirs, of course) and all goods are delivered via personal vehicles.
  • A city planner might suggest that we use shared rides for every single trip and people only live in dense areas.
  • A transit agency planner might suggest that people only rely upon public transit to get around.
  • A university planner might suggest an open data platform where nothing is proprietary; and
  • If you’re this Oregon governor candidate from two years ago, you would actually want to see all long distance travel via water slides!

This is all an exaggeration, but my point is that everyone is coming from their biased perspectives. Who is representing the masses? And how can we actually get to a safe, equitable, reliable, accessible, efficient, and effective transportation system if we can’t all agree upon what that is?

I believe that we need to think with less extreme perspectives and actually develop policies and plans that represent better middle ground. Here are some general principles that support that thinking:

  • Create performance standards for driverless vehicles to ensure safe roadways;
  • Utilize pricing to better manage roadway congestion and maintenance;
  • Minimize zero and single-occupancy vehicle usage via strong policy and pricing mechanisms;
  • Shift public transit agencies into mobility managers that either provide transit operations or oversee private companies providing mobility services (based on agreed-upon goals and cost-benefit analyses);
  • Create maximum (not minimum) parking requirements in locations with reasonable mobility options; and
  • Encourage alternative fuel usage via strong policy and pricing mechanisms.

Easy, right? 😊 If you take only one thing away from this blog post, I hope it’s that transportation policymakers and planners will have job security for years to come…

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Our “Gateway Drugs” to Driverless Vehicles

Today, we see non-stop articles about society’s willingness to ride in a driverless vehicle. Companies and academic institutions have conducted countless studies globally that show a range of likelihood and circumstances that would enable people to accept this new technology. During my speeches and panels on driverless vehicles, I often ask audiences if they would be willing to ride in a driverless vehicle and the responses are wide-varying. It is largely dependent on the crowd’s age, their location, and their familiarity with the driverless technology. It’s fascinating to see the crowd ponder that decision: “Would I hop in a driverless vehicle today if it was waiting outside to take me to my next destination?”

Then I think back 10 years and wonder how that same crowd would have reacted to this question: “Would you be willing to hop in a car with a stranger to allow them to take you to your next destination?” I’m pretty sure most people would have thought I was crazy. Uber and Lyft have made getting into a stranger’s car 100% acceptable. Of course, the corresponding technology and perception of accountability does help, but I find it just as surprising that the drivers are willing to let strangers into their personal vehicles!  Uber and Lyft, our “gateway drugs” to driverless vehicles, prove how a new technology that brings both reliability and convenience are likely to outweigh “old school” thinking regarding mobility norms.

Driverless vehicles have the potential to add even more reliability and convenience – in addition to increasing safety. For this reason, I have no doubts that our society will accept and embrace the driverless technology wholeheartedly. Do you agree?

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Will We Ever See Level 5 (Fully Automated) Driving?

I think this gets at the heart of the “driving towards driverless” question… Vehicles that fall into SAE levels 1-4 are available today, but the leap to true fully automated driving is non-trivial. See Wired article here for SAE levels definition. Every idyllic image of driverless vehicles, including people sleeping or working, requires full automation. Many of the stated benefits of driverless vehicles also require full automation. Waymo is likely the company closest to this reality, but many automakers are stating that they’re working towards full autonomy in the next few years. Should we believe them?

So what’s keeping us from full autonomy?  Let’s ignore the lack of regulations and societal acceptance. The number of unpredictable and/or complex situations are, literally, endless. Fallen trees post-thunder storms, an overpass collapsing, construction work zones, traffic detours, and the list goes on! Our society seems to gauge progress towards Level 5 autonomy based on number of driverless test miles “driven;” however, how many miles will enable driverless vehicles to predict all of these extreme situations?

I believe that the more “connectivity” we have, the sooner full autonomy can come. “Connectivity” refers to all aspects of vehicle to vehicle (V2V), vehicle to infrastructure (V2I), and vehicle to everything else (V2X). Connectivity is going to increase the amount of information available to share with driverless vehicles and minimize the risk of those unpredictable situations. When will more V2X applications be available?  This will require a significant investment in standards, infrastructure, privacy and data sharing policies, and cybersecurity protections.

Bottom line – I am not expecting to see fully automated (level 5) vehicles for a while, but what do you think?

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Why People Still Fear Driverless Cars

Thank you to Giles Kirkland for the guest post below. Giles is a car expert and new automotive technologies passionate with over a decade of experience in the niche. He constantly researches on the latest studies, cutting-edge findings, and perspectives for the future. Keen on increasing his own knowledge as well as helping to educate others, he shares his expertise with tech enthusiasts and drivers across the globe. You can find him on Twitter and at Oponeo.

For decades, people have been looking forward to autonomous vehicles as they’ve always been considered to be the future of modern cars. Lately, they’ve become an active part of the news as major players like Tesla, Uber and Google have began experiments and testing. Most media outlets refer to these vehicles with praise. However, if you look closer, you’re sure to find mixed opinions. While some people are incredibly happy about the technology, many are still afraid of it.

The ethical dilemma: Will self-driving cars make moral decisions in the same way human drivers do? Drivers are required to make split second decisions that they make on moral grounds and some people think machines will be incapable of making such a choice.

The latest research shows that autonomous vehicles can be given the ability to make such moral decisions by using some simple algorithms, yet it’s still unclear if they will choose between saving the driver or killing less people.

Fear of losing control: People fear losing control in many areas of life. Aviophobia, the fear of flying, is a great example. Just like dreading the thought of not being able to control a plane, many future passengers still fear letting go of their steering wheel. So there are solid grounds for this phobia. On the other hand, human driving is not error-free and the chances of it occurring could be minimized with autonomous cars.

Lack of understanding: Whenever a new technology is introduced, the lack of understanding is what causes most of the non-acceptance. Many people are afraid of driverless vehicles because they fail to understand them. A little awareness and education regarding this topic would go a long way and would definitely improve the way self-driving cars are perceived .

A questionable track record of safety and comfort: The first fatal driverless car crash happened in March this year. While it led to Uber temporarily suspending its self-driving programs, it once again raised the question about the driverless car’s bad track record for crashes. However, when you compare statistics, the number of collisions per miles driven is much lower for driverless cars.

Claims about self driving cars making people queasy have also recently appeared. Fortunately large companies such as Uber are coming up with ideas that will resolve the problem fast.

Employment issues: Most technological advancements come with the fear of unemployment as technology tends to replace human workers. In this case, it would mostly be taxi and truck drivers who could lose their jobs. Hopefully, this technology will bring new opportunities and society will eventually adapt to the change and benefit from it.

Driving as a hobby: Many people choose to drive just because it is something they enjoy or have fun doing. Self-driving cars should in no way cause them to miss out on fun. There most likely will continue to be a market for such enthusiasts. Perhaps some models will have both options, to be driven manually and autonomously.

There are definitely some serious concerns regarding driverless cars, but most of them have already been or will be addressed and the pros surely outweigh the cons. In fact, according to one study, self-driving cars are expected to reduce traffic accidents by as much as 90%. The existing issues hopefully will be resolved soon and this new technology will make our lives much more safer, efficient and convenient.

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Some Considerations Regarding the Uber Accident

As everyone in the world knows, a driverless vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. This is, of course, heartbreaking because any human death is a tragedy. We are waiting for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to conduct an investigation, but let’s be honest – the damage is done!  If people weren’t already skeptical of driverless vehicles, now they’re completely fearful of driverless vehicles.

I believe this incident raises a few specific considerations:

  • Regulations – This incident happened in Arizona where there are no driverless regulations. Moreover, the federal regulations still have not been passed. At this point, I don’t think it matters WHAT is in the regulations – the federal government (ideally) or even state governments need to put some rules in place. Regulations will need to evolve over time and they won’t prevent every incident while the technology continues to be developed, but I do think it will provide comfort to the traveling public that there is some oversight.
  • Technology readiness – The investigation will provide more insight into the fault of this incident, but it’s important for everyone to acknowledge the limitations of the technology as it stands today. The driverless technology has the potential for significant safety improvements on our roadways, but today’s technology is not yet ready to be deployed in all situations.
  • Pedestrian safety/infrastructure investments – This is not a driverless issue; this is an infrastructure design issue. Sidewalks and signage are just a couple of the infrastructure investments that can make roadways safer for pedestrians. Maybe this incident will highlight this issue as well? I doubt it…
  • Ethics – If driverless vehicles are going to, ultimately, save lives – is it OK to sacrifice some lives as the technology is developed? Logically, this may make sense, but I’m not sure our society is ready to accept that.
  • Public relations – Private companies are introducing the driverless technology around the world. This comes with risk and, clearly, Uber is experiencing the downside of that risk now. I believe it is these companies’ responsibilities to educate and respond to society about these incidents. I look forward to seeing how Uber responds in the coming days/weeks.

Sadly, this was going to happen at some point – it was just a matter of when…and how it would be handled (by both the private company and the government). How are the driverless stakeholders around the world responding to this incident?

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Driverless Vehicles for Kids?

As someone who is imminently expecting to deliver my first child, I often think about what driverless vehicles will mean for the transportation of children. I know that parents everywhere are dreaming of the day when they don’t have to “chauffeur” their kids from one activity to the next, but what does this really mean for transporting our youth? And is it really the panacea that parents are expecting?

Some of the concerns I’ve heard…and how they could be addressed:

  • Are these vehicles safe enough to transport kids? I have to believe that driverless vehicles will not be used for transporting children alone until their safety has truly been proven. As stated in this Wired article, school buses are often the last vehicles to adopt new technology – both for funding reasons and the long life-cycle of the vehicles.
  • What happens when the kids start fighting and require adult supervision? Of course the vehicle would be equipped with remote monitoring and communications, so, seemingly, an authority figure could observe any concerns (e.g., kids fighting) and discipline them via the intercom. If needed, the vehicle could be re-routed. Or, as this article suggests, laws could specify a minimum age or even require them to take a maturity test before allowing them to travel in a vehicle without adult supervision.
  • How can we be sure the kids are getting to and from their destinations safely? Interestingly, federal data suggests that “kids are most at risk when they’re boarding or alighting buses, not when they’re riding them” (per the Wired article). Driverless vehicles may provide more direct point-to-point service than the current school buses that rely upon a network of bus stops. And, someone will still need to be at home to receive the kids (driverless vehicles won’t be able to do EVERYTHING!).
  • How can we be sure kids are getting on the right vehicle and being routed to the appropriate destination? Facial recognition software is just one of the many technological advances that could combat this issue. Moreover, school districts and/or regulations may still require an adult presence on vehicles transporting kids; the benefit is that the adult’s skillset could be childcare-focused, as opposed to driving-focused.
  • Should we be concerned about privacy issues? Yes, we should be! And I would argue that we expose our kids to privacy issues when we give them SmartPhones, allow them to create Facebook profiles, and give them “Smart Toys.” I would expect appropriate regulations and protections to be in place by the time we’re at the point to send our kids in driverless vehicles by themselves.

Once parents learn to trust the driverless technology, I have to believe transporting kids via driverless vehicles will be an important market segment that both public agencies will continue to serve (via some version of school buses) and private companies will try to capitalize on. Clearly, I’m an optimist regarding how this will play out, but I know this is a controversial topic. What do people think?

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Four Reasons Public Agencies Take a Chance on Driverless Transportation

Despite making headlines on a daily basis, driverless vehicles are still a relatively nascent technology. Automakers and tech companies run tests around the world and a few cities have even ventured into true passenger operations, but the technology is far from ubiquitous. In fact, fully automated vehicles, also referred to as SAE Level 5, do not yet exist. Driverless technology continues to be newsworthy because automakers and technology companies around the world invest millions and form unprecedented partnerships to further its development. However, considering the state of the technology, why would (or dare I say, should) public agencies to become early adopters of driverless technology while it’s still in its infancy?

1. Introducing AVs to society in the right way

Generally speaking, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. Whether an institution is a city, transit agency, department of transportation, or even a private business park, it’s in a position to envision the ideal use of driverless vehicles and create policies, regulations, and rules that fit that vision. For example, city officials may recognize that they do not want zero-occupancy driverless vehicles clogging their streets, or transit agencies may recognize that they want to see driverless shuttles feeding into to their transit systems, so they can put the regulatory and policy framework in place today to make that a reality in the future.

2. Early adopters become the leaders and experts

The Contra Costa Transportation Agency (CCTA) took a risk and became one of the first public agencies in the United States to introduce driverless shuttles. Public and private organizations around the world now contact the agency inquiring to learn from their experiences in hopes of replicating their successes. They are now viewed as a well-respected industry leader.

3. Early adopters know how to prepare their organizations

An organization can help their stakeholders understand the benefits of the technology and the key activities needed to reap those benefits by introducing it early on. For example, the City of Arlington (Texas) introduced driverless shuttles as part of their innovative transportation pilot program. These shuttles transport people within Arlington’s Entertainment District.

As Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams stated, “It’s a great opportunity for us to do these pilot projects, for us to actually test them in our community and for our citizens to be able to look at them and see if they work here and what their opinion of it is. We want to see how this technology performs, where it is best utilized, and how it can be harnessed to potentially serve the city’s transportation needs in the future.”

4. Early adopters garner the fame and glory

Obviously, the intent of incorporating driverless vehicles into a transportation system is for improved safety, better mobility options, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, etc, but we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the media potential. As researchers continue to advance driverless technology, it’s the “firsts” (e.g., “first public road deployment,” “first winter weather deployment,” etc.) that make the headlines. Public agencies have the opportunity to become a part of this media frenzy by adopting autonomous transport technologies early on.

New technologies can introduce uncertainty and risk, but they can also have tremendous benefits. Public agencies can introduce new technologies early and in incremental ways that allow for the benefits to far exceed those risks. Based on the millions of dollars invested in driverless vehicles globally, it is clear that this is a technology that’s here to stay. At this point, it’s really just a question of who will adopt them first?!   Would you agree?!

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