My First Driverless Vehicle Riding Experience!

I’m ashamed to say that it has taken me two weeks to write about one of the highlights of my trip down under….I got to ride in a driverless shuttle in Perth, Australia!  Earlier this year, the RAC (a private membership organization that, amongst other things, advocates for safer roads in Australia), in partnership with the State transportation agency, acquired a fully autonomous (driverless) electric shuttle through French manufacturer, NAVYA. Referred to as the Intellibus, this Level 4 automated vehicle is navigating a few kilometers of public roadway near the Perth waterfront. Today, with a waiting list of thousands of people, the RAC is allowing members of the general public to sign up as a volunteer to ride in the Intellibus.

Some of my impressions:

  • This vehicle moves SLOWLY. I probably could have run faster than the Intellibus. That being said, the speed is slow on purpose. In addition to the fact that the RAC is testing the technology (and its reactions to obstacles), I would imagine that this is probably what the general public can handle at this point.
  • The other people’s response to the experience was priceless. I watched one woman go from disbelief to amusement to an external processing of what her life could be like with a driverless vehicle. Another person grilled the “chaperone” (who was extremely well-versed in the technology and the industry) about how the technology works. The “chaperone” explained that he has also had riders clutching the seats out of fear. These interactions, to me, are what it’s all about: building public awareness and acceptance around the technology.
  • The vehicle stopped very abruptly anytime anything appeared in its path. The vehicle was purposely programmed this way to maximize safety and minimize risks. Even if a cyclists was a few meters away, the vehicle stopped abruptly. This programmed “leeway” (or lack thereof) is an important consideration as these vehicles are introduced into our public roads.
  • The pre- and post- ride surveys were fantastic. The RAC is getting some very early public data regarding public acceptance, public confusions, potential future applications, etc.

Bottom line: I was so impressed with the RAC and the driverless vehicle experience. The RAC staff spent many months navigating the all aspects of the procurement process, regulatory exceptions, liability requirements, public communications, partnering with the state government, and the list goes on. In my opinion, they are paving the way for both the public and private sector and I was thrilled to have this opportunity.  Has anyone had any similar driverless vehicle experiences?


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The Biggest Barrier to Driverless Vehicle Adoption: Human Acceptance?

Here are just a few stats from some surveys that have been conducted recently:

  • In the United Kingdom, 73% of people would not give up driving in exchange for a driverless car and 38% of people would not likely buy a driverless car even if they were accessible and the same price as regular cars. (source)
  • In a survey of people from 10 countries around the world, 58% say they would take a ride in a fully self-driving car (source)
  • In a survey of Americans, a slight majority of adults under 30 are excited by the future of self-driving cars, compared to 40 percent who are worried. The attitudes of those over 65 are very different: just 19 percent say they’re excited about self-driving cars, while 71 percent are worried (source)

You get the idea…  While the survey questions, timing, and audiences were varied, it’s clear that people have significant concerns with riding in and/or purchasing a driverless vehicle.  This makes sense: driverless vehicles have been a fantasy concept in movies for years (see Disney’s Magic Highway and Total Recall, as examples); I’m not sure anyone expected to see them on our roadways in our lifetime.  I believe the only way to get past this barrier is to actually change people’s perceptions of driverless vehicles….from a concept to a reality.  This means that people need to be able to see and touch them!  Singapore, Pittsburgh, and London have taken great steps forward by doing exactly that and I expect many other cities to follow in the coming months and years. I’ll be curious to see if those cities’ comparable survey responses change more quickly than others.

The private sector is motivated to get these driverless vehicles out quickly, but what can the government do to help advance human’s acceptance?  Pilot programs (Bishop Ranch) and test sites (GoMentum Station and MCity) are just a couple of examples.  Do you have any other ideas?

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Additional Federal Driverless Policy Reflections

Having now read the United States federal driverless vehicle policy in detail, I continue to be impressed. The policy document has clear guidance for safety standards and it clearly delineates a boundary between federal and state’s regulatory responsibilities. It also acknowledges the importance of existing regulations (i.e., Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards). I also appreciate how the policy document outlines many of the issues and barriers associated with driverless vehicles that require further study (e.g., cyber security, data protection, etc). While I know this is a first cut and there will be many stakeholders providing input still, I thought I’d mention a few ideas that I would have liked to see mentioned (even as considerations….not requirements):

  • Since the impacts on vehicle miles travelled (VMT) is still unclear (and a significant risk), government (at the federal or state level) is in a position to encourage electric power technology to minimize greenhouse gas emission impacts.
  • While data recorders are required for safety purposes, it would be quite forward-thinking if the federal or state governments required anonymized reporting of vehicle miles travelled and even vehicle occupancy to support road user charge pilots.
  • Connected vehicle technology is an entirely different technology; however, most experts agree that the greatest safety benefits will be achieved when the driverless and connected vehicle technologies are combined. It is surprising that this document doesn’t acknowledge that.
  • I acknowledge that the liability issue has been and is intended to be a state issue, but I’m unclear on why this is the case. Wouldn’t insurance providers, auto manufacturers, and state government agencies all benefit from consistency in liability approaches across state borders?
  • Will driverless vehicles with Level 5 functionality be able to transport unaccompanied children? Maybe this is thinking too far out, but I think this will become a huge question once the SAE Level 5 vehicles are publicly available.
  • I understand that the policy document intended on delineating federal and state policies, but what about local governments? It would have been nice to see the federal government acknowledge the very important role that local governments have in developing policies that will mitigate the VMT impact, manage costs and revenues associated with the introduction of AVs, and re-imagine their transit systems (to name a few local policy issues).

Do you agree with this feedback?  Any others to add to this list?

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Federal Policy for Driverless Vehicles Were Just Released….and They Were Worth the Wait!

After months of build-up, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA) released its Federal Autonomous Vehicles Policy. It turns out the hype was merited. As stated in NHTSA’s press release, this 116-document “sets a proactive approach to providing safety assurance and facilitating innovation through four key parts. Vehicle performance guidance uses a 15-point Safety Assessment to set clear expectations for manufacturers developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies. Model state policy delineates the Federal and State roles for the regulation of highly automated vehicle technologies as part of an effort to build a consistent national framework of laws to govern self-driving vehicles. Finally, the policy outlines options for the further use of current federal authorities to expedite the safe introduction of highly automated vehicles into the marketplace, as well as discusses new tools and authorities the federal government may need as the technology evolves and is deployed more widely.”

I’m still digging into the details and I am planning on more blog posts on this topic, but I’ll share a few of my reactions and some that I’ve read:

  • To date, I’ve referred to fully automated vehicles as driverless vehicles, self-driving vehicles, or autonomous vehicles. The federal government has now introduced a new term: highly automated vehicles (HAVs).
  • NHTSA has a lot of policy supporters. This article includes some heavy hitters in the industry voicing their appreciation for the federal government’s leadership.
  • As this article points out, the policy states that “vehicles should record, at a minimum, all information relevant to the [crash] and the performance of the system, so the circumstances of the event can be reconstructed.” While it’s unclear exactly how the data sharing will happen, this is certainly a challenge…. And a broader governmental issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later as the government pursues partnerships with new mobility companies (e.g., Uber, Zipcar, etc) today.
  • I may be missing it, but the policy does not seem to mention the freight industry. This article suggests that the freight industry was not involved in the policy development. Hopefully, they will speak up during this 60-day comment period because they are important stakeholders!
  • I think the delineation between federal and state roles is logical and clear. As stated in this article, “when humans are driving, states are in charge, but when software is driving, the feds are in charge.”
  • I haven’t heard or seen any mention of federal funding supporting the advancement of this technology. We will likely have to wait until the next presidential term to see how that shakes out.

I’m most impressed by the US DOT’s leadership and progressive stance regarding accelerating the development and adoption of highly automated vehicles.  I think their approach is admirable and will likely be studied and, ultimately, copied by many other countries.  What did everyone else think?

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Do Driverless Vehicle Companies Need Permission to Operate on Public Roadways?

Chris Urmson, the former Google executive who once led the company’s self-driving car project, said “one of the great things about American innovation” was that if the law “doesn’t say you can’t do it, then you can.” (source)  Google is not alone in this perspective and, in fact, many of the technology companies have been lobbying the government to minimize regulations so as not to slow technological advancement. It’s no coincidence that Uber is testing its driverless vehicles in Pittsburgh and Google is testing a fleet of driverless vehicles in Austin.  Pennsylvania and Texas are two states that have permissive regulations and have purposely minimized any regulatory barriers to testing driverless vehicles.

As stated in a Washington Post article, “Pittsburgh might be the exact environment that innovators love to leap into — a legal void that can be defined by technologists, not bureaucrats. The question is how fast, and under what conditions, should the testing of a life-changing technology occur.”

While I am extremely supportive of technological advancement, I also believe in government regulation advancement. Technology is being developed quickly and, not surprisingly, government regulations are not keeping up. That doesn’t mean government regulation isn’t needed….it just means it needs to be figured out! While the bureaucrats may not know how to regulate driverless technology yet, I think it’s important that they establish some regulations that keep them well-educated on the advancing technologies and well-connected to the technology companies. I believe this is the only way that we can ensure the appropriate government regulations are in place when the technology is actually public-ready.

Michigan is working to maintain itself as an autonomous vehicle-friendly state by passing legislation that supports both the technology development and deployment. The chamber unanimously approved a package of four bills (S.B. 995, S.B. 996, S.B. 997, and S.B. 998), which will allow for the testing of driverless vehicles with no steering wheels or pedals, establishing an AV research center, and creating a liability shield for AV mechanics, amongst other rules. As stated in this article, “if these bills pass the state House of Representatives without substantial amendment, it’s not unthinkable that this new industry’s center of gravity may continue to shift away from Silicon Valley and back toward the original Motor City.”

Differing state regulations, of course, do not address the issue of having a patchwork of requirements state-by-state.  I know I’m not alone in being anxious to see the federal guidelines for driverless vehicles, which are expected to come out any day!

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How is Government ALREADY Leveraging Driverless Technology?

We read about the benefits of driverless vehicles all of the time: they’re going to be safer, provide greater mobility options, improve travel reliability, reduce freight costs, etc. What does this mean in practice though? Government agencies around the world are already finding ways to leverage the driverless technology to support these goals (and more!). Here are some exciting examples:

  • Shared vehicles (public transit): In Singapore, 24-person driverless pods will shuttle people to their destinations due to a partnership between 2getthere, a Dutch manufacturer of automated vehicle systems, and SMRT Services, Singapore’s second-largest public transportation company (source). CityMobil2 is a pilot platform for automated road transport systems, which are being implemented in several urban environments across Europe.
  • First/last mile solution: Transit agencies struggle getting people to and from transit hubs due to the cost of providing transportation to less dense communities. Bishop Ranch, an office park in the Bay Area, will be using Easy Mile’s driverless buses to transport people to a transit hub (source) and Las Vegas will be introducing multiple first/last mile pilots with Local Motor’s Olli (a self-driving shuttle) (source).
  • Mobility for the elderly: In Suzu, Japan, a local university is testing a prototype driverless Toyota Prius to address the challenge of providing mobility for aging drivers (source). This is especially important in Japan, which leads the world in aging (with one in four people older than 65).
  • Freight testing/piloting – In order to support the local economy and improve safety, Nevada is supporting the testing of driverless trucks (source). Also, European countries are supporting the testing of semi-automted “smart” trucks because they are likely going to be cleaner, more efficient, safer, and reduce congestion due to their consistent driving speed (source).
  • Military applications – The United States army will deploy driverless vehicles in extremely controlled areas, at low speeds and for special missions: to transport wounded soldiers to the hospital for rehab treatment. The Army is developing automated vehicles for two main reasons: First, self-driving vehicles can reduce the amount of money the Army spends on its fixed operations. And second, TARDEC engineers believe the technology and lessons from limited on-base driverless vehicles eventually can be used as the building blocks for automated battlefield vehicles (source).

This is just the beginning!  What other examples are happening around the world?

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Will Driverless Vehicles Eliminate Luxury Cars?

Luxury cars provide consumers with a higher quality ride (bigger engines, better handling, faster acceleration) and, most notably, owners typically enjoy the status associated with owning a high-end name brand vehicle.  So what will happen when the driverless technology is available?  This article suggests that luxury cars will have no purpose in an all self-driving future.

On the one hand, driverless vehicles will all leverage similar technologies, so the quality of the ride will (in theory) be comparable across vehicles. Even in this article about the Rolls Royce driverless concept and this site on the Mercedes F015 concept, most of the features highlighted in the article are aesthetic (sleek design, “luxury lounge,” and a virtual assistant); the focus is no longer on the ride.  Moreover, in theory, private vehicle ownership will decrease substantially, so the likelihood and, ultimately, the image associated with owning a vehicle could decline accordingly.

On the other hand, I have to believe a sub-set of our population will always own their own vehicle (despite what government policies are put in place to discourage it). Price has never and will never discourage the purchase of luxury vehicles, so that will not change, and companies will always find ways to differentiate their products.

My hope is that we will have mostly shared fleets (at least in our urban and suburban areas) and the shared fleets will have a range of products that are priced accordingly. A high-end, sophisticated shared vehicle with a sleek design, “luxury lounge,” and Starbucks coffee offered will cost more than the basic shared vehicle service.So what do you think?  Will we see the end of the luxury car market?

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