Discussing the Driverless Future

Discussing the Driverless Future

By Hilary Reeves, Development and Member Engagement Director
 Transportation on Tap

Transportation on Tap

At our latest Transportation on Tap happy hour event in Minneapolis, a fabulous panel of speakers and a lively crowd discussed what changes are coming with driverless vehicles. The biggest take-away? Whatever you call them, autonomous vehicles (AV) are coming fast and our regional planning isn’t keeping up.

As John Levin, who heads up Strategic Initiatives at Metro Transit, reminded everyone, five to six years ago we did not have bike-sharing, Lyft, Uber, or car2go, nor the many apps that are facilitating the sharing economy.

“A major technological shift is coming and the question is how to respond to it. Policy makers have to focus on making it affordable and on accessibility,” said Leili Fatehi, a legal and policy analyst at Apparatus and founding member of Self-Driving US. John Levin called for making decisions based on core values and principles such as mobility and access.

Fatehi said, “There is a fundamental equity question about service delivery model for AV and how we deliver transit.” Earlier this year, Fatehi testified at the Minnesota legislature in support of a proposed law—H. F. 3325 TIM’s (Transportation Independence for Many) Bill—that would establish a taskforce and demonstration project to advance self-driving car technology to meet the transportation needs of people with disabilities.

“Planning should be done more frequently and more dynamically,” said David Levinson of the U of M’s Accessibility Observatory. But across the nation, few comprehensive plans are factoring in driverless vehicles, he said. Fatehi, who has worked with other emerging technologies, urged planners to adopt the principles of “anticipatory governance” and focus on flexible technology investments.

Here’s a portion of the conversation at Transportation on Tap:

Will AVs supplant transit?

John Levin: “With high capacity transit, such as LRT, it’s difficult to imagine putting all those folks (transit riders) into individual vehicles, even with the better allocation of vehicle space that would come with AV. The issue is not supplanting high capacity vehicles but using AVs to feed people in.”

Levin said AVs also could help seniors age in place and provide mobility in places harder to serve with transit, such as in suburban areas with dispersed development patterns.

Will only the rich get to have these cars?

David Levinson: They will be for wealthy people first. But with mass production the cost will go down. This technology won’t behave quite like Moore’s Law (doubling every two years, as with transistors and circuits) but especially with battery development, it will start doubling every 10 years, with ever more efficient and smaller charging systems. Imagine, for example, charging platforms built into the pavement of bus stops, so that the electric bus wirelessly recharges when it stops to pick up passengers. Over time, sensors will replace steering wheels and brakes. These vehicles will be less expensive to design and insure.

Do you see changes in the ways that we design roads?

David Levinson: For first generation AV, we’ll need good paint on roads. Snow cover also poses challenges for AV. Over longer time, there will be no lanes, no signs, no traffic control at all.

I am representing older generation. Someday they will take my keys. Will self-driving cars be the answer?

David Levinson: Yes, for seniors, persons with disabilities, even kids ages 5-16. These vehicles could provide mobility for 12-15 percent of the population that does not drive.

Would this technology be hacked?

David Levinson: Security is being paid attention to. As with any technology, there will be a cat and mouse game of keeping ahead of the hackers.

Leili Fatehi: The more serious concern is privacy of data about where people go.

Fatehi spoke of other legal barriers, such as a California law that requires a driver and steering wheel in some vehicles. She said that insurance companies will spur changes, because of the lower risk parameters of driverless vehicles.

Thanks very much to Leili Fatehi, John Levin, and David Levinson for being on our panel and thanks to everyone who came to Transportation on Tap. To read more about this topic, check out the National Association of City Transportation Officials policy recommendations for the future of autonomous vehicles.

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