A recurring challenge encountered by state policymakers and stakeholders is how to successfully, and safely, integrate driverless cars onto public roads. Another ongoing question as pilot programs pop up around the country is how they can be used to improve public and private transportation.
While a state driverless vehicle working group continues to mull potential recommendations for the legislature, Kirkland-based traffic analytics company INRIX is already working with local governments to improve driverless vehicle performance through its AV Road Rules. The program uses data-sharing between road authorities and driverless cars to control how, when and where the vehicles can operate.
At the same time, CEO Bryan Mistele’s advice for lawmakers is to maintain a laissez faire approach. “The best thing that states can do for the most part is let the pilots happen. Let the technology improve; let’s not impede it with regulation legislation. Different companies are trying different approaches, and the market is going to decide.”
The future role of such autonomous vehicles in Washington’s transportation system was also a point of interest at a Jan. 25 work session of the House Local Government Committee. Rep. Vicki Kraft (R-17) noted that infrastructure projects should reflect the transportation preferences of Washingtonians. “One of the things I’m dealing with in my area currently is this emphasis to move people to a transit model. People want their cars, that’s what they’re driving. How do we make sure that we are providing the highway or road infrastructure to meet our constituents demand?”
ASCE’s Washington Infrastructure Report Card Committee Chair Richard Fernandez replied that new innovations such as autonomous vehicles could help address those concerns, but the state should be “thinking about policy now so we’re not investing in infrastructure that are obsolete when autonomous vehicles come online.”
However, the term “autonomous vehicle” is often used broadly in describing cars with very different capabilities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) classifies autonomous vehicles in four levels, with level five as fully autonomous.
Some industry members say level five vehicles operating in any and all conditions is impossible, and Mistele says “that’s a long way out. I think really right now we’re in this development phase (where) AVs have come from ground zero to, say, 70 percent in terms of what they need to be. But as with anything, the last 20 percent is the hardest.”
In the meantime, he says level four vehicles are right around the corner and in some ways already happening. In December, Kroger launched it driverless vehicle delivery system, while in Florida autonomous vehicles are used within retirement communities. Closer to home, the city of Bellevue hopes to start a driverless shuttle program in collaboration with major regional employers. In 2-3 years, he envisions ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft having a significant presence in urban areas.
One of the challenges for fully autonomous cars is they must be able to operate on gravel or unmarked roads and discern black ice from puddles. While city roads are well-mapped, construction work, crosswalks, and adverse weather conditions can test the limits of current technology and also make it harder for pilot programs to operate.
INRIX’s AV Road Rules program is intended to help overcome those obstacles; among the participants are the cities of Las Vegas and Austin, Texas. Through the program, vehicles are alerted to speed limit zone transitions and can be notified when road conditions change, such as with construction work.
“Cities want these AVs piloting in their areas,” Mistele said. “But at the same time, cities need some level of control. Ultimately, cities are going to create these rules.”
However, Mistele says the most revolutionary aspect of driverless car technology on transportation won’t occur on its own. He sees it intertwined with the rise of ridesharing companies that, combined with the reduced fares once human drivers are no longer needed, will shift away from a vehicle ownership model to one of “order on demand.”
He added: “There’s no question in my mind that the folks running these fleets are going to offer plans,” such as unlimited transportation on demand for a flat monthly fee model similar to Netflix.
“I order food through a mobile app, why not transportation?” he said.