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Isn’t That Why They’re Called “Automobiles," Anyway?


Isn’t That Why They’re Called “Automobiles," Anyway?


Source: The Annual Meeting of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) in Boston this summer did not have a formal theme, but the evolution of autonomous vehicles was the subject of the keynote plenary session and the topic permeated many conversations throughout the conference.  Given the current chatter on both news media and social media, the topic is timely.  In particular, it’s useful for the transportation planning professional to ask, “what’s in it for me?”  Or more precisely, what role can I play to help ensure that the next generation of traveler technologies are as beneficial to society as possible?

Coming soon to a dashboard near you

On the one hand, the technology is already in place for self-piloting cars that can handle either long drives on the freeway or short jaunts around town.  The primary driving force (so to speak) of the adoption of the technology revolution is the marketplace.  At roughly $10,000 per car, adding on the latest cutting-edge road-ready autonomy technology is still the province of the elite, which raises equity eyebrows in certain circles.  But the prices will drop over time; innovations such as GPS, keyless entry, antilock braking systems, automatic transmissions, power steering, air conditioning, radios, crankless ignitions, and even doors and roofs were each in their own time viewed by some as the enviable epitome of automotive luxury and by others as the beginning of the downfall of the human race into softbellied know-nothings.  Raise your left pinky if you remember how to crank a window.


The concept of the driverless car has been around for, well, about as long as the car.  For decades a key objective was to increase speed and capacity and the primary approach was to engineer and build new motorways for these next-generation vehicles.  The Norman Bel Geddes vision presented in the General Motors Futurama exhibit in the 1939 World’s Fair was one of the most memorable visions of this supposed utopia with some five million visitors.  For a while, the connected vehicle revolution was expected to be led by the public sector development of the automated highway and the role of the public sector planners and engineers was clear; to lead the implementation of these new technologies as funding would permit.

The evolving role of the planner

But the marketplace couldn’t wait.  The paradigm has shifted fairly rapidly in the past couple of decades as the nexus of the information revolution has been distributed from the provider to the consumer.  And the focus of the industry is shifting as well; increased speed and capacity are generally being replaced by increased safety as the primary selling point for new technologies.

So today’s city planner is not going to be designing automated transportation systems so much as facilitating an adaptive process; considering the ramifications of the information explosion and how best to manage deployment through plans, policies, and regulations.

As ITE’s  Siva Narla noted in a July ITE Journal article, as of spring 2013, seven states had legalized driverless cars.   But the term “driverless” is also shifting; it doesn’t so much mean that the car has no driver as it does that the driver is doing less.  Richard Bishop suggests that it will be several more years before any driving task is fully turned over to the car itself, but that fully automated vehicles may be feasible in ten to twelve years.  There are still many technical, legal, and even cultural (nobody in any of the driverless vehicle videos proliferating on YouTube is playing dominos with the family; the technology is not sleep-inducing just yet) issues to work through.


There are also concerns that automated vehicles could adversely affect the transit industry by stealing riders who would return to their cars once the problem of distracted driving is solved in favor of the distractions.  Certainly, the transit rider’s ability to multitask counts as a point in favor of transit, but still pales in comparison to factors like auto availability, operating costs, and travel time.  And information technology advancements will continue to make transit use more legible, predictable, and productive.  Total travel time is expected to become less and less important; reliability, productivity, and comfort are increasingly relevant to customers in making decisions about whether, how, and when to travel.   The marketplace is also producing resources like Ridescout to help folks navigate the increasingly robust, and complex, environment of choices.  So perhaps it’s really not so much about connecting vehicles as it is about connecting people.

Speaking of people, while we’re steadily getting cars to be able to talk to roadway design elements, to traffic control devices, and to each other, these safety improvements are most effective when applied to avoiding crashes based on reliable, predictable movements.  Unfortunately, many elements in the roadway are neither predictable nor as immediately susceptible to direct influence from connected technology.  Pedestrians, for instance, are increasingly connected to each other via digital devices, but distracted walking can be as hazardous as distracted driving.  George Washington University is one place where a decidedly low-tech approach is being tried to remind walkers to  cross first, text later.    And the sidewalk buddy app pronounces that “texting and walking safety issues are gone!”  although with the disclaimer that the app is for entertainment purposes only.

Meet George Jetson

OK, so the flying car we were promised fifty years ago may never get off the ground, although the sky is still the limit for possible innovations.  What’s next?  I’m no expert, but it’s fun to imagine the possibilities:

- 2015:   The first car that removes backseat drivers is introduced into the market.

- 2020:  The Volkswagen Golf claims to have the first truly driverless car, but it only works if you’re just puttering around town.

-  2025:  The Sidewalk Buddy app comes with a neural plug-in that causes the connected pedestrian or bicyclist to come to a complete stop in a locked and upright position when an impending crash risk is identified.

- 2030:   Protestors attempt to shut down the Washington economy by hiring a fleet of driverless vehicles to drive around the Capital Beltway in an endless loop at 20 miles per hour.  Since everyone else on the Beltway is so engrossed in being part of the story via their Twitter feeds, everybody wins.

-  2035:  Vehicle Miles of Travel finally exceeds Person Miles of Travel  - there’s no reason anymore to go looking for an ATM or a public restroom – just order one up and it’ll meet you at the curb.

OK, so it’s not very likely that any of these things will really occur.  Given the market responsiveness on the matter it appears that whether you’re a planner or not, what does happen is up to you.

–Dan Hardy, Cities That Work Blog