Imagine a world where highway traffic fatalities drop considerably, emergency vehicles get to their destination faster, vehicle emissions are low or non-existent, “road rage” is a thing of the past, and the word “idiot” is used far less. This light hearted introduction actually captures some of the many highlights of the incredible changes autonomous vehicles will bring to transportation.

Autonomous vehicles, or “driverless vehicles” as they are more often called, exists today and are being tested for deployment on our streets. These vehicles will absolutely change transportation forever; they will change the way you travel and how products are delivered.

Many of you have heard vehicles referred to as driver assisted, connected and self-driving which are not the same things. For example, you may already own a car that has advanced driver assistance systems that automate and/or improve safety features.  This technology includes capabilities such as: Lane Departure Warning, Lane Change Assistance, Adaptive Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning, Driver Drowsiness Detection, and  Parking Assist.  Connected vehicles are even more advanced. They “talk” to each other and the infrastructure via internet capabilities, which increases the level of safety.  Finally, autonomous vehicles sense the environment and navigate on their own—no human involvement is necessary.

But before we go any further, let’s look at a possible scenario involving your day using a self-driving vehicle.

  1. You need ride to work: Use app on your phone or computer to arrange a private or shared autonomous vehicle. The car comes to you! You know the costs for the trip when you order the vehicle. Since the car is connected to the larger system, you can get a reliable time estimate to get to work. There may also be demand pricing ( higher pricing during peak travel) so you can alter your times to save money.
  2. Errand at lunch: Order small individual car and get your errand done. No parking to be concerned about. Car drops you off at errand and then picks you up and you return to work.
  3. Ride home: private or shared vehicle at the time you want to leave. No bus, train or metro to wait on. The connected system can also suggest a good time to travel.
  4. Trip to movies with family of 6: Order larger vehicle and at same time arrange for pick up after the movies with a trip to the ice cream parlor and then home. Dropped off and picked up at the front door of each destination.
  5. Car returns to maintenance hub for charging and service. No need to put the car in your garage, or for car payments, maintenance cost or auto insurance premiums.

These vehicles allow for truly individualized convenient transit. You travel on your time with known costs before you start your trip.

Levels of Automation

The scenario demonstrates how convenient these vehicles are and this may be a good point to define the different levels of automation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued policy guidance on autonomous vehicle in September 2016.  We provided a news alert on the policy which can be located here. The Policy offers a single federal definition for the levels of automation. DOT adopts SAE International’s definitions for levels of automation:

  • At SAE Level 0, the human driver does everything;
  • At SAE Level 1, an automated system on the vehicle can sometimes assist the human driver conduct some parts of the driving task;
  • At SAE Level 2, an automated system on the vehicle can actually conduct some parts of the driving task, while the human continues to monitor the driving environment and performs the rest of the driving task;
  • At SAE Level 3, an automated system can both actually conduct some parts of the driving task and monitor the driving environment in some instances, but the human driver must be ready to take back control when the automated system requests;
  • At SAE Level 4, an automated system can conduct the driving task and monitor the driving environment, and the human need not take back control, but the automated system can operate only in certain environments and under certain conditions; and
  • At SAE Level 5, the automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them… Using the SAE levels, DOT draws a distinction between Levels 0-2 and 3-5 based on whether the human operator or the automated system is primarily responsible for monitoring the driving environment. Throughout this Policy the term HAV represents SAE Levels 3-5 vehicles with automated systems that are responsible for monitoring the driving environment.”

Level 5 vehicles are the safest system we can provide. States and the federal government understand the enormity of this opportunity.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 States have enacted or are pursuing autonomous vehicle legislation.  On Sept 14, 2016:  U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a 10-year, nearly $4 billion investment to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects. The NHTSA policy document is a huge step forward to establish some national standards with the hope of moving the technology and testing forward without having individual states creates impediments.

These vehicles are on the roads today and are being tested at facilities like GoMentum Station in Concord, California.  The U.S. is not alone in the pursuit and implementation of self-driving vehicle technology. Germany, England, France, Finland, Italy, Spain are just some of the countries that are actively testing and utilizing these vehicles.

Advantages of Autonomous Vehicles

The larger benefit of such a system is that the human element is removed and safety increases. According to the NHTSA’s information, approximately 35,000 people died in highway related vehicle accidents in 2015, an increase of about 7% from previous years.  The NHTSA accident data chart linked here, shows that over the last 10 years about 33,000 people die annually from accidents on the highway. The NHTSA reports that these technologies can reduce highway traffic deaths by a whopping 94%.

“NHTSA is using all of its available tools to accelerate the deployment of technologies that can eliminate 94 percent of fatal crashes involving human error,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.

The ability to increase safety and dramatically reduce highway related fatalities is clearly reason to pursue the autonomous vehicle deployment, but there are other advantages:

  • Convenience—More individualized transit. The car comes to you when you need it, will stop where you need to be and even make stops along the way. Transit will truly be convenient.
  • Goods Movement – Transporters will be able to move freight faster and cheaper. Trucks will not be sitting idle in traffic, they are connected to the system. The vehicles are all “talking” with each other allowing traffic to flow resulting in faster delivery and reduced costs.
  • Environmental Improvements – Air, GHG emissions. Electric and hybrid vehicles with zero emission systems will result in cleaner air.
  • Bicycle Integration – Bicycles could be linked into system with a bike chip. Pedestrians with phone app could also be on the system. This system would be a true “complete streets” scenario. For example, a vehicle planning a right turn at the next light would notify the bike chip. The chip would give two beeps to inform the rider that the car is making a right.
  • Emergency Vehicles Clearer Paths – No more panicked drivers that just stop in the middle of the lane or intersection because they don’t want to move and possibly get in the way when they hear a siren. Well, they are definitely in the way and slow the response time for emergency vehicles. Connected vehicles “know” that the emergency response vehicle is on the road and where it is going. They will move out of the way or take an alternate street before the emergency vehicle is anywhere close.
  • Land Use Planning — Since people will not need to leave their vehicles in the parking space for 8 hours while at work or doing errands since the shared vehicle will have left to assist another, regional and transportation planners will need to alter their thinking. Autonomous shared vehicles will create more space due to the reduced need for parking lots and no curbside parking. Existing parking garage structures can be demolished and the land used for other purposes. No cars parking on the street will make biking much safer with wide bike lanes and connected bikes as discussed above.
  • Narrower lanes needed – No need to expand lanes since the cars would be communicating and could operate in much narrower lanes.
  • Reduced Congestion means a faster commute
  • More Options while traveling – Passengers can sleep/work/visit/watch TV/movies, no one needs to focus on driving.
  • No “road rage” – Safer travels. The bad drivers aren’t on the road causing folks to get upset.
  • The “last mile” – For those taking other forms of transit, driverless shuttles can provide connections to and from the transit stop and the office/home.
  • Hubs can be placed in existing space – The vehicles will need to be charged and maintained. The good news is that we already have existing spaces to utilize for hubs. For example, underground parking garages could easily be converted to maintenance hubs and the cars would be out of sight.
  • Jobs created for industry – Professional driving jobs will be lost and with the transition time to automation vehicles, the industry will shrink and shift to new jobs. New jobs will be created maintaining the hubs and vehicles as well as software and network opportunities.

Legal Issues

There are of course some legal issues involved and again, this is an overview article. A few of the issues involved include: how the computer interprets data—ethical question “what to hit”; who owns the data (including the data generated from trips); must prevent hacking of network system; different state laws—need consistency; the  Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards need updating to include self-driving vehicles;  how to handle the loss of  driving industry jobs; insurance coverage for manufacturer of vehicle, software and hardware; what about people that just want to drive; land Use Planning—20 and 30 year Regional Transportation and General Plans need to include autonomous vehicles now–won’t need to include parking in plans; and of course the privacy concerns. Additionally, some communities are concerned with loss revenue from traffic and parking tickets.

These issues, and many others, are currently being discussed and will evolve through the testing and implementation phases. There must be an open dialogue on these issues, not just among the experts, but with customers and communities so that there is a true understanding of the capabilities of the systems and the concerns that need to be alleviated.

Significant Transportation Improvement

It is time to shift gears to save lives and change transportation forever. Self-driving vehicles are the greatest advancement in transportation since the airplane.  The individualization and efficiency will clearly draw people to this truly safe and convenient transportation system.  We need to move proactively to get this incredible system in place expeditiously and safely.  The vehicles need testing opportunities and regulations need to allow for a broad range of testing.