Cities will need to adapt to self-driving cars

If self-driving cars arrive soon, cities may not be ready:

Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.

The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.

There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.

Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?

It sounds like there is a lot of good that could be done in helping to reverse the changes that occurred from the early to mid-1900s where cities were altered in significant ways – wider streets and smaller sidewalks, the construction of highways – to make it easier for cars to operate in the city. Of course, making some of these roadway changes doesn’t necessarily lead to a Jane Jacobs urban paradise. Take downtown Manhattan: you could reduce the size of roads and give pedestrians more space. Yet, the scale of the buildings often would not help; you can create all sorts of sidewalks but if they are shrouded in shadows from skyscrapers, is it inviting? Or, adding more pedestrian space may not necessarily lead to more lively street life if there isn’t a mix of uses to attract people. On the whole, having to emphasize cars less could be very attractive but a lot of additional work would need to be done to truly take advantage of the opportunity.

Self-driving cars require better maintained roads

Self-driving cars may have advantages but they might also require spending more on road upkeep:

Shoddy infrastructure has become a roadblock to the development of self-driving cars, vexing engineers and adding time and cost. Poor markings and uneven signage on the 3 million miles of paved roads in the United States are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps to compensate, industry executives say.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently called the mundane issue of faded lane markings “crazy,” complaining they confused his semi-autonomous cars…

An estimated 65 percent of U.S. roads are in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, with the transportation infrastructure system rated 12th in the World Economic Forum’s 2014-2015 global competitiveness report...

To make up for roadway aberrations, carmakers and their suppliers are incorporating multiple sensors, maps and data into their cars, all of which adds cost.

 

It would be interesting to see some estimates of the additional costs to keep roads at a level where self-driving cars can safely operate. Does the money saved in less congestion on the roads and fewer traffic accidents outweigh the new maintenance costs?

On the other hand, having to do more frequent construction may not affect drivers as much if all cars are self-driving. Since such vehicles are supposed to improve traffic flow, construction is something drivers wouldn’t have to handle – their cars would do it for them. And, if we have driverless cars, can we have driverless maintenance vehicles?

The furor over traffic fatalities – in the early 1900s

With talk about the first Google self-driving car crash, one writer reminds us of earlier discussions about cars and accidents:

There’s some precedent for all this, of course. It’s not as though the car as we know it today was thwarted by human deaths. The first recorded traffic fatality in the United States occurred in 1899, in New York City, when a man stepping off a trolley was struck by a taxi.

The three decades that followed were chaotic and deadly. Scholars and justices debated whether the automobile was, perhaps, inherently evil. By the 1920s, cars were causing so many deaths that people in cities like New York and Detroit began throwing parades in an attempt to underscore the need for traffic safety. Tow trucks would haul smashed, totaled vehicles along the course of the parade. From The Detroit News:

“Some wrecks featured mannequin drivers dressed as Satan and bloody corpses as passengers. Children crippled from accidents rode in the back of open cars waving to other children watching from sidewalks. Washington, D.C., and New York City held parades including 10,000 children dressed as ghosts, representing each a death that year. They were followed by grieving young mothers who wore white or gold stars to indicate they’d lost a child.”

Eventually, traffic laws and other safety features—stop lights, brightly painted lanes, speed limits—were standardized. And car-safety technology improved, too. Vehicles got shatterproof windshields, turn signals, parking brakes, and eventually seat belts and airbags. In 1970, about 60,000 people died each year on American roads. By 2013, the number of annual traffic fatalities had been cut almost in half.

I am usually amazed when I look back at historical and sociological work about the major changes in society due to and in response to the car. Even with all the safety implications – tens of thousands of deaths each year – Americans went all in for the car, changing our streets, residential patterns, leisure activities, homes, and numerous other areas.

There are also some similarities with the advent of railroad technology in the mid-1800s where it took some time to develop reliable safety devices. In Forging Industrial Policy, sociologist Frank Dobbin describes the multitude of safety issues in Britain where railroads were allowed a lot of latitude until too many people were dying.

Rumbler emergency siren to shake your vehicle

Milwaukee police are trying out a new kind of siren:

It’s a siren you don’t just see, and hear, you actually feel it. It’s called the Rumbler and it’s expanding on a police force near you. It’s a siren that emits a low frequency sound that vibrates your car. It goes through the material of the vehicle, the frame, and seats. The subwoofer is located inside the grill of the car. Milwaukee K-9 Police Officer, Jeff Lepianka says the department has been adding the sirens over the last few years to battle distracted driving.

Lepianka says, “Drivers will have their ear buds in, be on their cell phone. This siren will break through this and get the people to pull over so I can get to where we need to go.”…

“With the Rumbler going people 10 to 15 car lengths are already getting to the side.”

Those precious minutes saved, could save lives.

In the name of safety and combating distracted driving, perhaps this is the wave of the future. This possible technology prompts two thoughts:

  1. This reminds me of the use of high-frequency sound devices used to chase away teenagers. Since adults lose the ability to hear such frequencies as they age, it can be particularly effective in targeting loitering youngsters.
  2. When we eventually all have self-driving cars, it would be easy to automatically pull all vehicles aside to allow emergency vehicles through. This could certainly help decrease response times but it would certainly be odd – at least the first time or two – to be automatically sidelined.

The article suggests pulling over is often delayed because of distracted driving but I wonder if this is also the case even when the drivers aren’t engaged in other activities. Have driving norms changed? At what distance are drivers supposed to pull over? I’ve noticed that fewer emergency sirens use their sirens and it is not always easy to see flashing lights.

Proposed: self-driving cars need to have drivers at the wheel

California is proposing that self-driving cars take their time in becoming self-driving:

The approach California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offered Wednesday in precedent-setting draft regulations is cautious, though it does allow that Californians could be behind the wheel of a self-driving car by 2017.

Among other safety-related requirements, the cars must have a steering wheel, and a licensed driver must be ready to take over if the machine fails…

Before the DMV grants that three-year permit, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s safety assurances. Google and traditional automakers advocated for manufacturer self-certification of safety, the standard for other cars.Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, then get a special certification on their licenses. If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

This is not too surprising given the newness of the technology as well as the potential safety hazards for others on the road. I don’t think any body of government wants to be responsible if the self-driving technology fails and someone is hurt or dies.

At the same time, this article introduces a new wrinkle to the development of this technology: if companies think these regulations are too onerous, why not develop the cars elsewhere? The suggestion here is that Texas might emerge as another option. Could it be better for consumers and innovation if two states work with different regulations and different companies?

Autonomous vehicles to intensify motion sickness

A new study suggests self-driving cars will make motion sickness worse:

For adults, motion sickness will be more of an issue in self-driving vehicles than in conventional vehicles. Some are expected to experience motion sickness often, while others may actually feel sick every time they’re riding in an autonomous vehicle, a study by researchers at The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute revealed…

Mr. Sivak and his co-researcher Brandon Schoettle looked at the three main factors that cause motion sickness (conflict between vestibular and visual inputs; inability to anticipate the direction of motion; and lack of control over the direction of motion) and determined that they are elevated in self-driving vehicles…

It’s become evident that self-driving cars will replace traditional cars in the future, and when this happens, all adults (who are most prone to motion sickness) will be passengers at all times. Mr. Sivak clarified that being a passenger in an autonomous vehicle will be quite different than riding along in a train or other mode of public transportation, for, unlike trains, self-driving cars will be subject to more lateral acceleration/deceleration as well as longitudinal acceleration/deceleration that is drastically less smooth. The small windows won’t help either.

The other major factor in the increased prevalence of motion sickness is what adults will do whilst in cars instead of driving. In an opinion survey of 3,255 adults from the U.S., China, India, Japan, Australia and the U.K., respondents named reading, talking/texting, sleeping, watching movies/TV, working and playing games as the activities they’ll engage in while riding in self-driving cars. According to the study, almost all of the activities mentioned worsen the frequency and severity of motion sickness.

An interesting side effect of a new technology. But, this means that automakers can/should include virtual reality devices to ease the ride – they won’t just be cars but rather entertainment pods! Everyone can be like the kids of today who ride in the expensive minivans and SUVs watching their split screen entertainment systems while holding their tablets and smartphones…

Self-driving cars could make sprawl even more popular

Suburban sprawl has its critics but self-driving cars may just make long commutes more palatable:

As driving becomes less onerous and computer-controlled systems reduce traffic, some experts worry that will eliminate a powerful incentive—commuting sucks—for living near cities, where urban density makes for more efficient sharing of resources. In other words, autonomous vehicles could lead to urban sprawl.

It’s simple, says Ken Laberteaux, a senior scientist at Toyota. If you make transportation faster, easier and perhaps cheaper, then people won’t mind commuting. “What a consumer is expected to do is see what they can gain by moving a little further from the job centers or the cultural centers,” he says. That’s bad news: Urban sprawl is linked to economic, environmental, and health hardships…

Laberteaux’s not the only one concerned about this. Autonomous vehicles should ease highway congestion, and commuters will be able to catch up on work or sleep en route to the office. That limits the incentive to trade your McMansion for a brownstone, says Reid Ewing, director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center. The implications of this go beyond transportation; in a 2014 report for advocacy group Smart Growth America, Ewing linked sprawl to obesity and economic immobility.

Ewing likens autonomous driving to the construction of “superhighways” during the post-war boom years, which spurred suburbanization. “If you can travel at higher speeds with less congestion and you can use your time productively while you’re traveling in a self-driving car, the generalized cost of travel will be less on a vehicle-per-mile basis,” says Ewing. “Just like when, before the interstate system, people were traveling at 30 miles per hour, there wasn’t nearly the spread of development that there is today.”

The car is a remarkable invention that with adaptation (oil doesn’t seem to be quite running out, alternative fuel sources, etc.) could be around for a long time. So, perhaps the real answer to limiting sprawl is simply getting rid of cars or finding more and more ways to incentive not owning a car.