Automated Vehicle Symposium Reflections

I just spent the last few days at the Automated Vehicle Symposium, a conference organized by AUVSI and the Transportation Research Board (TRB). I attend many conferences, but I wanted to write about this one just because it, to me, is one of the most valuable conferences for finding a balanced perspective on automated vehicles. Representatives from the technology developers (e.g., Google), OEMs (e.g., Ford, GM), insurance companies, U.S. federal, state, and local government representatives, acadmemics, consultants (like me!), and all of those stakeholders’ international counterparts were in attendance. I especially love to meet and see the experts who I am often reading about in automated vehicle publications and news articles.

Here are some of the key observations/themes that I noted from this conference:

  • Government regulation was constantly discussed, but the largest issue debated seemed to be whether or not the government should develop regulations in advance of the technology being publicly available or wait until afterwards (as government has traditionally done). Mark Rosekind, the NHTSA Administrator, mocked the fact that the government is constantly being told they’re too slow and yet now – they’re being asked to slow down!
  • It was acknowledged that different states are putting regulations in place (and not putting regulations in place) all with the ultimate goal of improved safety, but each state’s approach is very different. This continues to present challenges for the technology developers and any inter-state demos/pilots.
  • I was pleasantly surprised to hear how both the public and private sector stressed the importance of building public awareness around automated and connected vehicles. I’m looking forward to seeing how that evolves.
  • The Tesla accident was mentioned many times (how could it not?!), but it was not a focus and everyone seemed to acknowledge it and then encourage continued forward progress.
  • This conference focused more on automation + connectivity being ideal (I didn’t feel like that theme came out in past years).
  • I was thrilled to hear that the United States government will be actively partnering with other governments around the world for the purposes of knowledge and data sharing. It’s clear that many other countries (e.g., Sweden, Germany, the UK, and Japan) are making amazing progress in this space.

Any other conference attendees have any interesting observations?

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A Few More Thoughts on the Tesla Accident

Another day passes and another batch of articles have come out regarding the recent Tesla Autopilot accident. Last week’s blog by Steve Kuciemba highlighted the potential avoidance of this crash if connected vehicle technology had been involved. I have a few additional thoughts:

  • Full autonomy (assuming it was a well-tested vehicle) could also have avoided this accident. As Chris Urmson of Google states in this article, “people were doing ridiculous things in the car” (referring to people’s response to partially automated vehicles). People assume a vehicle with some level of automation can handle a lot more than it’s actually equipped to do. This reflects people’s human nature to 1. Not have awareness/understanding of how partial automation works, and 2. Be lazy (and not focus on driving). Note: all of these news articles may be helping to address the lack of awareness issue!
  • Exactly how much testing is necessary before a vehicle is allowed on the road? Automobile manufacturers would probably argue that years of testing is required before deploying new features to the public. This New York Times article states the following: “a Tesla executive said the Autopilot system had performed safely during tens of millions of miles of driving by consumers. “It’s not like we are starting to test this using our customers as guinea pigs,” he said.” What standards are required here and how can the government determine an appropriate threshold?
  • As I’ve stated in an earlier blog post, I’ve always worried that one accident could slow (or even halt) the development and/or adoption of driverless vehicles. This article is one of many that suggests this concept. I think this would be a huge loss for society because the accidents caused by these “robo-cars” will likely be a fraction of what is currently caused by human drivers.

It looks like Tesla has no plans to disable the Autopilot feature (source). I wonder if that’s a good or bad thing…. Thoughts?

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Automation Without Connectivity – Why Take The Risk?

I’m thrilled to introduce Steve Kuciemba as my first guest blogger! Steve Kuciemba is the National Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Practice Leader for WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.  With nearly 30 years of experience under his belt, Steve has a unique background having previously worked for an automobile manufacturer, a state department of transportation, and a national non-profit industry association.  

It was recently revealed that the driver of a Tesla Model S was killed while his car was engaged in the “autopilot” mode – a semi-self driving feature that allows the vehicle to take over certain aspects of the driving task.  The facts of the case are still under investigation, but a number of details have been revealed: (1) a tractor-trailer coming in the opposite direction made a left turn in front of the Tesla, (2) the front-facing camera and radar failed to distinguish the threat because of bright sun and a solid white trailer, and (3) the driver of the Tesla was allegedly not paying attention and failed to notice the hazard ahead.  It was a tragic accident and investigators are currently sorting through conflicting witness reports, whether or not the conditions can be repeated in a test condition, and most importantly – why did the driver of the truck make a sudden turn in front of the path of the oncoming Tesla in the first place.

Some of the media jumped all over automated self-driving technology – despite the fact that this Autopilot feature in the Tesla Model S was never intended to be a fully self-driving capacity where the driver can take their attention away from the driving task.  The automaker has provided numerous warnings about drivers remaining focused, keeping hands on the wheel, and keeping feet nearby the pedals.  This was, unfortunately, an early glimpse at the possibilities that technology can offer – and the tragic dangers of misusing or misunderstanding the capabilities and limitations that accompany it.

This is also a case where connected vehicle technology – V2V and V2I – could have provided the additional data that would have enabled the vehicle to alert the driver to an impending collision, or could have taken corrective action such as engaging emergency braking capacity.  Even though the onboard cameras and sensors missed the conflict, with connectivity the vehicles would have known of each other’s positions and provided a back-up; and if nothing else a warning that something was amiss. Had the truck and car both been outfitted with connected vehicle technology, the truck driver might not have made the dangerous turn in the first place – either by way of in-vehicle warning or by way of automatic override of the driving task.  Accident conditions prevented.  It is my opinion that automation without connectivity is a risk we don’t have to live with – especially since the industry is making great progress.  Protect the spectrum, promote the installation of vehicle and roadside technology, and break down policy barriers to CV implementation.  The safety benefit is worth it, don’t you think?

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Driverless Car Myths

Countless reports and studies regarding driverless vehicles speculate about the drastic changes that will happen as a result of the proliferation of this disruptive technology (my Guide included!). I thought I’d highlight a few of the more extreme myths and de-bunk them:

  • No more headlights will be needed! Despite what this article states, headlights will still be needed. Even if the vehicles don’t need headlights to “see” in the dark, pedestrians and cyclists will always need to be able to see the vehicles.
  • AVs will reduce or eliminate stoplights! While this article highlights the potential for commute time savings with no stop lights, it ignores the fact that (again) pedestrians and cyclists will need to know when they can safely cross intersections. Moreover, the study assumes a society with all driverless vehicles and it may be many decades before we come close to that.
  • Connected vehicle technology won’t be needed once AVs are here! Driverless and connected vehicle technologies are distinct technologies that have significant benefits independently; however, the combination of the two will maximize the safety benefits for society.
  • All AVs will be EVs! Just about every research report discussing AV impacts highlights reduced greenhouse gas emissions since AVs will be fueled by electricity. These are two distinct technologies, so it can’t be assumed that AVs will leverage the EV technology.
  • Public transit will be obsolete! While I do think transit agencies will need to re-think their service offerings, fleet types, pricing, and coverage areas, I believe government involvement in public transportation will always be necessary. Government will need to manage their jurisdiction’s mobility to minimize congestion, ensure proper transportation options for all demographics, and enable seamless payment across platforms (amongst others).

The list of driverless car myths is much longer….any other ideas?

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The Legal Mess that Driverless Cars are Creating

Despite the fact that driverless cars will have huge positive impacts on our society (improved safety, enhanced mobility, more reliable travel times), there are still some significant legal questions that need to be addressed. Many insurance companies and state government agencies are struggling with the liability question (e.g., who is responsible if a driverless car gets into an accident?), but there are so many more legal questions to grapple with. In fact, driverless cars are calling many of our legal precedents into question. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am identifying more and more questions:

  1. Can you get a DUI with a driverless car? This article suggests that current laws in Florida would hold the “driver” of a driverless car responsible.
  2. Should seat belts continue to be required if the driverless cars are going to be so much safer?
  3. Can young children travel by themselves in a driverless vehicle?
  4. When are driverless cars allowed to ignore road signs and markings? To avoid an accident? To keep traffic flowing? To allow cyclists and pedestrians to pass?

Do you have any other thoughts?

While many are stating that injury lawyers that focus on automobile accidents should be looking for another job, I think it’s safe to say there will still be plenty of legal activity resulting from the introduction of driverless vehicles!

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Besides Personal Travel, How Can Driverless Technology be Used?

Clearly, the media outlets are most excited about the ability to move people, but there are so many other applications to consider! The freight industry is (understandably) excited about the potential for applying both connected technology (e.g., platooning) and autonomous technology (e.g., driverless) due to the cost savings associated with no drivers, great fuel efficiency, and ability to operate around the clock (no driver breaks needed!).  This is especially relevant for the freight industry due to a national shortage in drivers.

Other interesting applications of the driverless technology include:

  • Military applications: “The US Pentagon sees robots becoming more and more a part of military life with robot warplanes, submersibles, and infantry vehicles taking their place on the battlefields of the future…For all the cost of ships, planes, armor, and weapon systems, manpower is the single greatest expense in modern, industrialized armed forces.” (source)
  • Farm applications: Driverless tractors are just one example of how this technology can allow farmers to focus on other activities.
  • Mining applications: Volvo has developed a driverless truck that can explore underground mines. (source)
  • Warehouse applications: Automated, electric-powered forklifts can improves safety and productivity in warehouses.
  • Security applications: I haven’t actually heard about this, but driverless vehicles with security cameras could be used to monitor dangerous neighborhoods via remote (safer) monitoring.

Interestingly, most of these other industries cite that driverless technologies have been in use for many years.  This likely reflects the fact that introducing driverless technology onto our public roads is a lot more complicated than these other applications.  What else am I missing?

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Will Driverless Cars Increase Vehicle Miles Traveled?

Should we be worried?  Frankly, yes! I do believe there are loads of likely positive impacts for society associated with driverless technology; however, the risk of significant VMT (vehicle miles traveled) increase is HUGE.  Here’s why I think so:

  • People may forego transit and any form of carpooling/ridesharing due to the added convenience of AVs (e.g., commutes to work, kid transporting to and from school and after-school activities, etc.).
  • People may send their AVs out for errands (with no passengers) and forego trip linking or add additional errands (e.g., stop at the additional grocery store where the paper goods are cheaper).
  • People or companies may park their vehicles in remote parking lots outside of our urban centers.
  • People may let their AVs drive in circles in close proximity to an event with high attendance so it’s ready to pick them up as soon as it’s finished (e.g., conference, fair).
  • Urban sprawl increases as people are willing to live farther from where they work.

On the other hand, there is still hope!  Here’s why:

  • TNCs (i.e., Uber, Lyft) are making sharing rides with strangers that much more commonplace.
  • Technology, in general, is making ride sharing a more convenient, accessible option.
  • Government may set pricing and policies that either incentive ridesharing and vehicle sharing or disincentivize car ownership, single occupancy vehicle travel, significant VMT, or parking.
  • Government may invest in a reliable, seamless, well-priced public transportation system.

What do you think?

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