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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Are Driverless Shuttles Our Future?

As many already know, I strongly encourage vehicle and ride sharing (in general), but with the advent of driverless vehicles – I think vehicle and ride sharing will be vitally important for our society. For that reason, I have been remiss in not focusing on the driverless shuttles that are being developed and, in some cases, are already being tested on streets today. As shown in this table, some of the leading driverless shuttle companies include Local Motors, EasyMile, Navya, AuroRobotics, and Varden Labs. All of these vehicles currently operate at slow speeds (e.g., 25 mph) and are targeting closed campus environments and providing transit first/last mile solutions (with some exceptions, of course). They’re all also powered by electricity.

Interestingly, some of the automakers and technology developers are also entering this space, including Mercedes Benz and Tesla; however, these seem more conceptual at this point.

I was happy to see that three out of five of the driverless shuttle companies have offices in the United States. Sadly, most of the U.S. media focus has been on passenger vehicles and I think it’s important to shift our focus to shared vehicles.

Will these and other private companies replace our public transit services? That’s highly unlikely; however, they will likely start operating in transit agencies’ service areas (similar to what Chariot, Bridj, and other micro-transit companies are doing today). Transit agencies need to recognize that driverless shuttles present opportunities for the agencies and partnering early is a great start. Let’s create safer, more cost-effective transit systems that still support important government goals (geographic coverage, access for all demographics, etc).  Do you agree?

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My Wedding Chariot:A Driverless Vehicle?

30 days to go until my Yosemite wedding! Driverless vehicle suppliers – Can you help make my dream come true?

google wedding car

If you have any ideas/suggestions – please email me at isaac@pbworld.com!


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How Can Driverless Vehicles Support Government’s Goals?

Lately, I feel like there is so much focus on the negatives associated with driverless vehicles that we have lost focus on the positives. As with any new product, there are going to be glitches (and I think it’s important that government is involved in minimizing these glitches’ impacts on society), but let’s keep our eye on the prize:

  • Increased safety! Humans cause the majority of incidents on our roadways today. I believe the folks at CAVCOE said it best when they said “If we assume that within a few years, the data is in and computers are shown to be significantly safer drivers than humans…not perfect, just significantly better. Is it ethical to allow humans to continue to cause all those collisions, deaths and injuries? At what point do the regulatory bodies ban human drivers?”
  • Increased mobility! Imagine Grandma getting to her doctor’s appointment on her own, the neighborhood drunk getting home without hurting anyone, and a blind person traveling downtown effortlessly. Driverless vehicles are going to provide a new, convenient, safe mobility option for many people who couldn’t or shouldn’t have been driving before.
  • Better use of city space! Driverless vehicles will likely require less wide roads. Also, parking can either be re-located or eliminated (hopefully eliminated) because driverless vehicles will be able to park themselves remotely or (hopefully) increased ride sharing will require a lot less parking. Parking is estimated to take 15-20% of our city’s footprints, so this is a significant amount of land that can be re-purposed – ideally for more bike/ped infrastructure, parks, etc.
  • Better throughput! Driverless vehicles will likely be able to travel more closely together (especially with the addition of connected vehicle technology). In theory, they can travel at faster speed limits too. This, combined with less vehicles circulating looking for parking, should allow for more reliable, faster movement in and around our cities.

Please note that all of these benefits are directly in line with most of our city’s goals (e.g., Vision Zero, reduced congestion, increased transportation access, etc).  How else do government’s goals align with the benefits of driverless technology?

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