This year may be remembered as the year that driverless cars became real. This is because Waymo has officially started operating driverless cars, without back-up drivers, in a public ride-sharing service in several suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.
Driverless cars are legal in most states so long as a licensed driver is at the wheel ready to take over if there is a problem the computer can’t handle. Without the back-up driver, they technically aren’t legal anywhere. But the governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, has promoted a “rules-free environment” for driverless car experimentation.
This past year was also a record year for Amtrak. This puts the lie to transit-agency claims that low fuel prices are the main culprit behind recent ridership declines. An interviewer asked five transit executives what their most important challenges were and not one of them mentioned competition from ride-sharing companies. Like transit, Amtrak must compete with modes that benefit from low fuel prices, but so far it doesn’t have to deal with ride sharing. The fact that it is doing fine shows that ride sharing, not low fuel prices, are the most important source of transit woes. Continue reading
A company called Navya introduced a driverless bus in Las Vegas, and within two hours it was involved in a traffic accident. A semi-truck was backing up and grazed the fender of the driverless bus. All the blame was placed on the truck driver, but you have to wonder if a human driver would have avoided the accident by backing out of the way.
Meanwhile, Waymo has been demonstrating its driverless technology, and is even running its cars on public roads without a back-up driver at the wheel (there is a back-up driver in the back seat, but that’s an inconvenient location if they needed to take over). One writer describe’s Waymo’s technology as “so good, it’s boring,” noting that it can deal with pedestrians, cyclists, and even squirrels running in front of the cars.
But a top Waymo engineer frets that bicycle riders are so unpredictable that they may need electronically connect to driverless cars to protect themselves. While such connections may be nothing more than a smart phone app, some gram-counting cyclists may resist carrying any extra weight. Continue reading
The National Transportation Safety Board has issued its report about the 2016 crash that killed a Tesla driver. This has been billed as the “first self-driving car fatality,” but the truth is that the Tesla wasn’t designed to be a self-driving car. Instead, it is what is technically known as an SAE level 2 autonomous car, which is defined as “driver assistance systems of both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver perform all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task.”
Instead of treating it this way, the driver acted as if it were a level 3 car, meaning a car capable of performing “all aspects of the dynamic driving task with the expectation that the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene.” The Tesla was not designed to deal with all aspects of driving nor was it capable of making a request for the driver to intervene.
In this case, the car was going the legal speed limit on a highway and failed to slow or stop when a truck illegally entered the right of way to cross the highway. The Tesla was designed to detect another car in its lane but not a vehicle crossing the lane. The truck driver–who, the NTSB notes, had been smoking marijuana–cross the highway in violation of the Tesla’s right of way. An alert driver would have slowed down, but the Tesla driver was relying on his car to do things it wasn’t designed to do. Continue reading
Minnesota planners want to be “ready” for driverless cars. But most of what they propose sounds like things that the anti-car crowd wants to do anyway.
This includes things like reducing parking spaces and shrinking the size of streets–both items high on urban planners’ agendas for years. While that may be possible when driverless cars come to dominate the road, there is no guarantee, so they shouldn’t jump the gun.
They are happy to jump the gun when it comes to not building new roads. “The last thing cities should do is add lanes to existing roads,” said a planner from the University of Minnesota. This assumes that driverless cars will dramatically relieve congestion and that neither population nor personal mobility will grow in the future. Actually, a good case can be made that some lanes should be added to existing roads both because they are needed now and because population and travel growth in some areas will make up for the potential congestion relief from driverless cars. Continue reading
“Street Wars 2035” cries The Guardian; “Can cyclists and driverless cars ever co-exist?” The article predicts that streets will be designated “autonomous-vehicle only routes” where cars will whiz by, centimeters apart, allowing no room for pedestrian or bicycle crossings. Apparently, the writer never heard of stop lights or rights of way.
“The forces of driverless motordom try to push pedestrians and cyclists off the road” shrieks Treehugger, citing the Guardian article. All this hysteria is derived solely from one quote by Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn in January, 2016. Speaking to CNBC, Ghosn said, “One of the biggest problems is people with bicycles. The car is confused by them because from time-to-time they behave like pedestrians and from time-to-time they behave like cars.”
I’m not sure why Ghosn is even considered an expert, as Renault is hardly the forefront of driverless car technology. However, Renault’s partner, Nissan, has promised to have several models of self-driving cars by 2020. While Ghosn was technically CEO of Nissan when he made the statement (Renault owns 43 percent of Nissan and Nissan owns 15 percent of Renault), I suspect his statement was just an unguarded remark and not meant to the first shot of a war on bicycles. Continue reading
“By 2030,” says a new report from a group that calls itself RethinkX, “95% of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals.” The Antiplanner is more optimistic about the rapid growth of self-driving cars than most, but RethinkX’s prediction is more dramatic than anything the Antiplanner has said.
As recognized in this more moderate report from UC Davis, RethinkX’s statement is really three predictions in one: first, about self-driving cars; second, about what powers those cars; and third, about who owns those cars. I think 95 percent by 2030 is optimistic for any one of these predictions, much less all of them.
First, the decision about what powers cars is completely, 100 percent independent of the decision about whether humans or computers drive cars. So long as the United States gets most of its electricity from fossil fuels, even natural gas, the environmental benefits from converting to electric cars is negligible, especially since we can make gasoline-powered cars more fuel-efficient. Continue reading
Bloomberg has a long article about Google’s lawsuit against Uber over self-driving car technology. In a nutshell, one of Google’s top engineers, Anthony Levandowski, left Google to start a new company called Otto that was then purchased by Uber for $700 million, and Google is accusing Levandowski of taking its company secrets with him and giving them to Uber.
The real story, though, is not over patent disputes but a debate in the industry over how to introduce the new technology to the market. This debate has to do with the distinction engineers are making between self-driving cars and driverless cars. Advocates of self-driving cars, meaning cars that can increasingly drive themselves but sometimes need humans to take over, argue that this stage is needed to collect as much information as possible to perfect the technology.
On the other hand are advocates of driverless cars, meaning cars that never need a human operator, who argue that not only is the self-driving phase not needed, but that it could be dangerous because a self-driving car may not be able to alert on-board humans that they need to take over in time for them to do so.
Add Intel to the list of companies working on self-driving cars. It just spent $15.3 billion purchasing Mobileye, a manufacturer of sensors used in autonomous cars. Intel’s CEO says he expects to have a complete hardware package ready for auto makers in 2024. Considering Ford’s promise to have fully autonomous cars on the road by 2021, that might be late, or it might just be more realistic.
Meanwhile, after much criticism from the industry, California has revised its proposed rules for self-driving cars. The original rules did not provide any possibility for testing of cars that did not allow a human override. This led Google and other companies to migrate their testing operations to Texas and other friendlier states.
Most states still don’t have any laws providing for self-driving cars, but because the people who wrote those laws never conceived of the possibility, most states also don’t outlaw them. Arizona, for example, has no law, and the governor “welcomes them with open arms.”
A new study estimates that self-driving cars will save the United States more than $300 billion per year. The study adds up the costs of traffic accidents and assumes that self-driving cars will reduce accidents by 90 percent. That’s optimistic, but the study doesn’t even count the savings due to congestion relief, increased productivity while traveling, and the reduced cost of delivering goods and services.
On the other hand, one analyst estimates that self-driving cars will “wipe out 4 million jobs.” A taxi- and limo-driver lobby group has already begun to lobby the New York legislature to protect jobs by banning self-driving cars.
This is where it is important to understand the difference between benefits and costs. Jobs are not a benefit; income is the benefit. Jobs are costs: if more income can be produced with fewer jobs, everybody gains. That includes the people whose jobs are lost because–at least if the society is reasonably mobile–they can find better jobs instead, paid for out of the money people saved by reducing costs.
The big question about self-driving cars is “when?” On one hand, there are rumors that Google will start selling its self-driving cars next year. While even the Antiplanner doesn’t think that’s realistic, Ford is promising self-driving cars in 2019 and other manufacturers are saying 2020.
On the other hand, many are saying that, due to liability concerns and technical problems with such factors as rain and snow, it will take much longer than that. Another study predicts that, even if the first self-driving cars enter the market in the next decade, it will take several decades after that for them to dominate the roads.
The Antiplanner has written on this before, but the more I learn, the more I am convinced that the first self-driving cars will be for sale by 2020 and that they will be the dominant form of travel within not much more than a decade after that.