Features

Autonomous Cars: More on the Pros, Cons, and Competition

Motor City Blogman

Just as Wired magazine published a headline-grabbing story about hackers taking control of a new Jeep Cherokee with UConnect, engineers, computer programmers, professors, and lawyers were meeting in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to discuss evolution of the autonomous, connected automobile.

The Automated Vehicle Symposium is held every year by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and so it measures advances in these technologies in increments. Questions and concerns about security, ethics, and who’s responsible for the first crash caused by an autonomous car are not new for this group.

This year’s AVS followed the University of Michigan’s grand opening of its Mcity autonomous vehicle test track, where some of the suppliers and automakers participating in the symposium gave demonstrations of their latest technologies. I stayed indoors and listened to presentations. While there were no revelations, there were some interesting ideas that give clear indications where the automobile industry and our transportation system are heading. Herewith, a few tidbits:

Michigan vs. California

The University of Michigan is extending its three-year-old testing of smart cars on public roads into an “entire system of connected roads,” entailing some of the major roads between metro Detroit and Ann Arbor, according to John Maddox, assistant director for the U-M Mobility Transformation Center (MTC). It could rival Google’s autonomous car-testing efforts in Silicon Valley and adds the element of ice- and snow-covered roads, which semi-automated cars can’t handle very well so far.

The MTC essentially is an extension of the university’s test of smart car technology that began on public roads in 2012, with a $100 million budget funded by automakers and suppliers, state and federal governments, and the university.

By next year, the MTC expects to test National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Level 4 autonomy (SAE Level 5) – which means no human control – in Ann Arbor. Michigan’s Department of Transportation must report to the state legislature by February 2016 the next steps to be taken in regulating autonomous and automated vehicles, including the issue of an “operational” license, which would allow such technologies on public roads.

The report could lead to Michigan roads accepting fully autonomous cars, such as the Google prototype, without steering wheels or throttle/brake controls. Google is currently waiting for California’s transportation department to issue such an operational license, expected late this year.

Mind the Gap

The key to safety is to make sure that when we add layers of automation, the transitions between the time the driver takes over from the automated system, or vice versa, is seamless, said Levasseur Tellis, Ford Motor Company’s technical specialist for functional safety.

“The driver’s role changes as the automation levels change,” he said. Ford is working with General Motors and four other companies on an autonomous development program called the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership.

“The goal is to have no gaps in who’s doing what,” Tellis explained.

The Ultimate What Machine?

Can American drivers make proper use of semi-automated technologies, analyst Glenn Mercer asked. Consider that 10 million U.S. drivers still don’t wear seatbelts. Conversely, how can BMW continue to use the tagline “The Ultimate Driving Machine”?

“How do you market cars you don’t drive?”

Double-Rush Hours

SAE Level 5 (NHTSA Level 4) fully autonomous cars would cut down on the demand for parking spaces in urban areas and at businesses, because a Level 5 car could drop you off from work and then return home to accommodate other family members. But, noted Philipp von Hagen, member of the Porsche Automobile Holding SE executive board, “that could double commuter rush hours, as cars drive home after your commute to work.”

Mercer, the industry analyst, suggested that this phenomenon also will expand suburban sprawl because more people will accept a 90-minute commute to work if they can use cars as mobile offices.

Integrate the Car with the Infrastructure

“High-speed rail is far safer, faster, and more efficient than cars because the trains and the rails were engineered together,” said Adriano Alessandrini, professor at University di Roma La Sapienza, and project coordinator for CityMobil2. “Henry Ford pushed the idea of privately owned cars operating on public roads. This is a mistake. You have the opportunity to correct this mistake.”

His presentation followed Google self-driving car chief Chris Urmson’s keynote speech, which itself mostly outlined Google’s ongoing testing, as detailed in “The Pros of Autonomous Vehicles”.

Google's Chris Urmson

“Autonomous vehicles will be able to drive almost anywhere in a few years,” Alessandrini said, poking fun of Google’s goals. “Chris told me, 2020.”

Unlike Urmson, Alessandrini doesn’t see a world in which autonomous and driver-operated cars can safely and efficiently share urban roads. “Cities cannot allow a Wild West of autonomous driving,” he said.

Echoing Mercer’s concerns about suburban sprawl, autonomous cars “will have a good effect on some areas, a bad effect on others,” Alessandrini added.