I’m always more than a little wary of hype. I also understand it; it makes us feel good, it kicks the idea-train into overdrive. All the rumors and possibility of what’s to come. Hype is the result of generous amounts of excitement and the unknown, mixed into a stiff cocktail of imagination—and usually not worth the price.
Despite a myriad of setbacks, there’s still no shortage of hype on the internet surrounding autonomous vehicles. Instagram, Medium and other digital grapevines are quite alive with AV concept designs and glamorous portrayals of a hands-off-the-wheel future.
But on the corporate and economic side of things, the boiling hype has come to a simmer and conversations about autonomous vehicles have become more subdued than SciFi. Reality, it seems, is setting in.
2018: A TURNING POINT IN THE ROAD TO AUTONOMY
For the better part of a decade, AV vanguards and the media alike have had our imaginations aswirl with images of Jetsonian cars, dropping less-than-obvious notions of autonomous vehicle design. They won’t have steering wheels, breaks, or engines, for instance… nor, perhaps, seats or even windows, necessarily.
The media loved it, people lapped it up, and Google search pages turned into clickbait minefields. Take this ZeroHedge.com headline for example: Jetsonian Era Looms: Boeing Is Preparing To Launch Flying Taxis.
Flying cars are, understatedly, a long way off. (Though, the foundational technology is here.) But 2018 underscored the fact that fully autonomous vehicles aren’t around the corner either, at least for private ownership.
A series of high profile crashes involving Uber and Tesla AVs catalyzed much need questioning about the safety and readiness of driverless cars.
When Uber withdrew all 200 of its driverless rideshare vehicles as part of its response to a fatal pedestrian accident, it was like the AV industry flinched.
Then came Karen Kelly and Samuel Schwartz’s groundbreaking book, No One At The Wheel. It dives headfirst into scientific and philosophical discussions of how autonomous vehicles would actually impact life, ethics, family, and economy.
Volvo’s 360c Level 5 driverless car. Appealing to the mind and eye, though potentially never ready for road. Volvo seems to have stopped promoting the 360c on its Instagram as of late 2018.
But perhaps the nail in the coffin came directly from the leaders of driverless technology, Waymo. Late last year, also in response to growing concerns about AV safety and capability, CEO, John Krafcik, conceded that driverless tech won’t be unanimous on our roads for decades to come, and will likely never be capable of handling all road conditions.
The technology to get a Level 5, no-wheel-needed driverless car from Point A to Point B—through congested streets in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, around detours, in the rain or sleet or fog, safely—just isn’t there yet. And might never get to a truly hands-off point. Certainly not by 2050, as most of the hype was claiming.
MORE MONEY TO BE MADE AND SAVED IN MOSTLY-AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES.
The gravity of Krafcik’s remark is unignorable. But that doesn’t mean Level 5 automation is impossible; it simply means it won’t likely reflect the fantastical hype.
However, separate freeways or lanes for shipping and transportation, and separate lanes for AV buses and taxi services may make non-private, fully driverless vehicles safe and feasible. If we have demarcated roads, parking lots, and other zones accessible only to L5 vehicles, then safety becomes less of a concern and optimization really has the chance to flourish.
In the meantime, we should be focusing on Level 2 through Level 4 automation, which is where a lot of organizations, public and private alike, stand to benefit.
As you read this, semi-autonomous semi trucks by Embark are transporting Frigidaire products along the worlds longest AV route, 650 miles between El Paso, Texas and Palm Springs, California. Like all AV vehicles right now, the trucks are not fully driverless, but as the technology improves, there will be less demand on human drivers and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
On city streets, companies like Aptiv and Nvidia are working with service providers like Lyft, to unroll mostly-autonomous taxi services. Using RTK (Real-Time Kinematic GPS augmentation), Aptiv’s technology allows Lyft’s beta AVs to navigate within 2.5 centimeters (about an inch) of accuracy, instead of the standard 10 centimeters. It sounds small, but it’s the difference between knowing a pedestrian is waiting on the curb or slightly out in the crosswalk.
POLICY REMAINS IMPERATIVE
Properly rolled out and regulated, AV transit services could go a long way in creating a healthy mixed-mobility ecosystem in cities around the world, and relatively soon.
But we need to have solid policies in place to ensure that cities are the primary influencers of AV transit, not private companies who put profits and stakeholders above pedestrians and urban dynamics.
Instead, these companies—who are crucial to advancing the mobility industry—should be partners and collaborators working with, not around, mobility agencies to create safe and cohesive transit systems. With private and public entities collaborating on everything from technology to policy making, we can incorporate Level 2, 3, and 4 autonomous vehicles into creative, thoughtfully designed and properly regulated urban mobility networks.
In reality, autonomous mobility may be nothing like the Jetsons. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be just as good.
– Without the hype, we’re getting a clearer idea of an autonomous mobility future
– Regulation and collaboration will be imperative to a cohesive transit system that includes a variety of AV levels and mobility options.
– AV tech should be rolled out step by step, so as not to put the cart before the horse.
– We definitely need a 21st century cliché to replace “putting the cart before the horse.”