Driverless Cars and Some Definitional Challenges

I just got back from the Automated Vehicles Symposium in Detroit last week. The conference was extremely impressive – reflecting the latest and greatest from AV and CV technology developers, academic folks studying human factors and ethics, government officials testing and working on regulating the technology, and even insurance providers! It was exciting to see how far these stakeholders have come and how quickly they’re working to figure out the rest. Here are some photos from the conference, including my first experience in a driverless car!

There were two instances at this conference where definitions came up:

  1. Since the conference was called “Automated Vehicles Symposium,” I was curious to hear how they define automation. It turns out “automated” is intended to cover all levels of automation, so it encompasses function-specific automation (e.g., cruise control and driverless parking) to fully autonomous vehicles (see NHTSA’s vehicle automation definitions). Connected vehicles also provide various levels of automation. This is relevant because the government is in a position now to regulate automated vehicles as auto manufacturers increase the level of automation in vehicles.
  2. My favorite part of the conference was the break-out session titled “Beyond Single Occupancy Vehicles: Automating Transit and Shared Mobility.” There were fantastic speakers and incredibly spirited discussions afterwards – mostly focused on a very basic question: How do we define transit? Wikipedia defines it as “a shared passenger transport service which is available for use by the general public.” LyftLine and UberPool are just a few of the latest service offerings that are challenging this definition.  In my opinion, any transportation service where the government is funding a vehicle that transports more than one member of the public at a time is public transit.  How that service is delivered (especially as driverless cars are available) is another story.

There are probably many other examples of words with changing definitions in light of autonomous vehicles, but these were the two that stuck out to me.  Do you have thoughts on others?

About Lauren Isaac

Lauren Isaac is the Director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile. Easymile provides electric, driverless shuttles that are designed to cover short distances in multi-use environments. Prior to working at EasyMile, Lauren worked at WSP where she was involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Lauren wrote a guide titled “Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies” regarding how local and regional governments should respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium, and long term. In addition, Lauren maintains the blog, “Driving Towards Driverless”, and has presented on this topic at more than 75 industry conferences. She recently did a TEDx Talk, and has been published in Forbes and the Chicago Tribune among other publications.
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2 Responses to Driverless Cars and Some Definitional Challenges

  1. Nice post, Lauren. It appears that your definition of ‘public transit’ is more about how it is paid for (‘where the government is funding a vehicle’) than the concessions it operates under or who uses it. A couple of alternative views could include: whether it operates under some form of concession; whether it is open to the ‘general public’; whether it runs according to a schedule; whether people can be denied service; and perhaps others.
    In Auckland a public transport service can be declared as ‘commercial’ if an operator chooses to operate the route without public funding. By your definition, would that make the service not ‘public transit’?
    In San Francisco and Washington DC there is the casual carpooling/slug-line phenomenon. I would argue that these have many of the features of public transport, but few would agree with classifying it in that way.
    I agree with your point: changes in the landscape are challenging the way we use terminology. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. However, your point is very important because in the USA there are many rules around transit that is funded with public money that do not apply to transit that is not funded with public money. If LyftLine and UberPool (and other services such as pop-up buses) do not come to the public trough for sustenance, then there is a possibility that they cannot be regulated in the same way as services that depend on public funds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lauren Isaac says:

      Paul – thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I completely agree with what you’re saying and I do think that, in the end, the government needs to figure out how to appropriately regulate all transportation service providers – public and private. The business models may change; however, the need for safe, equitable service is a must.


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