Category Archives: autonomous car

Synergy: Autonomous Cars and Cell Phones

 

Synergy is a simple way to describe the relationship between  cell phones and autonomous cars. The more we use our cell phones, the more we need  to find a safer way to travel.

Most of us know that we are at greater risk for an accident when we use our phones and drive at the same time. Yet, we persist, and at any given time, an estimated nine percent of drivers are talking or texting (2011). The actual numbers may be higher, as evidenced by new 2016 data showing that motorist deaths are continuing to surge.

Engineers are developing autonomous cars to address virtuous needs like safer roads, mobility for the disabled and blind, and energy efficient travel. But, what about the “talk factor”,  the not-so-safe activity that happens in the background of vehicle trips?

FILLING TIME AND SPACE… THE DISTRACTION

Drivers and passengers  have tamed in-vehicle time by using their phones on the Internet, placing or receiving phone calls, and sending texts or chat. Our transportation models  consider the origin, where people travel from, and the destination, where people travel to. But, the research does not pay attention to what happens in the middle, the sandwich time between the endpoints.

Drivers who use their phones are distracted in several ways: visually, cognitively, and manually. The cell phone, as distraction, bears an interesting comparison with car radios. Are they a source of distraction, even though the “conversation” is one way?

THE RADIO AND DISTRACTION

Bill DeMain examines this issue in a 2012 article for Mental Floss. When car radios debuted in the 1930s, there was heightened concern that they would distract drivers. Reaching for the dials, and searching for a station could take a driver’s focus off the road.  A few states, Massachusetts, New York, and others, proposed fines if a driver installed a radio. It is vital to remember that these early cars lacked power steering and automatic transmissions, so driving safely required full attention and “two hands on-the wheel.”  

Early legislation to ban car radios failed, but it is reminiscent of today’s hard-to-enforce laws that prohibit texting while driving or hand-held devices.  

Today, close to a century later, you might expect that drivers are more familiar with their car radios, particularly as the controls and placement have simplified. Yet that is not the case. In 2002 the NHTSA reported that 66 percent of fatal car crashes involved  “Playing with the Radio or CD”.  In a more recent white paper the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) does not single out the car radio, but observes that sixteen percent (16%) of the fatal crashes in 2009 involved distracted driving. Police reports could visibly identify cell phones in nearly 20 percent of these fatalities, but the actual rate was thought to be larger.

In 2014 the NHTSA reported only 10% of fatal crashes and 18% of injury crashes were associated with distracted driving. That’s because NHTSA changed its standards for reporting distration. The new data set is not specific to cell phones, and includes all sources of driver distraction, including, of course, the radio. It is noteworthy that while people are driving more miles, there should be a safety offset from vehicle improvements such as air bags, assisted braking, and electronic stability control.  In their 2016 data analysis, The National Safety Council, a nonprofit group, indicates that traffic fatalities are growing at a pace that far exceed the three percent increase in miles driven .

SHOPPING FOR NEW CARS

But, on a more colloquial level, it seems that people now shop for a new car with connectivity, not safety, at the forefront. For example, a Car and Driver/Good Housekeeping selection for the best cars of 2017 indicates the new GMC Acadia has standout features: “The features of this SUV are:  (1) the Acadia seats up to seven (2) it has a Bose sound system and (3) it can serve as a WiFi hot spot perfect for road trips.”

Buyers of the Acadia and other vehicles like it, have a new found opportunity to fill the dead time when they travel, the time and the space between here and there. They can continue their online presence, even when they are behind the windshield. Intuitively, drivers know that they put themselves at some risk when they do so; it does not take a driver’s education class to understand there is heightened visual and cognitive distraction. Even with hands-free control, most drivers know that they are not as safe, but they continue to use their cell phones. If  they are lucky enough to own a Tesla, they interact with a giant touch screen.

DISTRACTED STILL

Older people may be less adept overall with these technologies and have slower reflexes operating cell phones and touch-screens in the car. The MIT Age Lab and others study this in field work. One of the surprising results they  report is that drivers using voice command interfaces to control in-car navigation systems  sometimes spend longer with their eyes off the road than those using conventional systems. Moreover, there is no evidence that older drivers are safer operating the dials on the car radio, while younger people are safer and more adept with phones. 

Going forward, the only real solution to reduce accident rates for drivers of all ages is to take their hands, their minds, and their visual field completely off the road. Then, they can fully participate in and manipulate their online conversations, without fear of an accident. The desire to do this will move the technology. It will move it towards hands-free, hands-off trips in autonomous cars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autonomous Cars & Bicycle ‘s Best Friend (BFF)

 

A recent headline noted that Uber’s autonomous cars may be a danger to bicyclists. But, that was  short-lived. Autonomous cars are on track to be a bicyclists BFF (bicycles best friend).

 During the seven day pilot in San Francisco, test vehicles made some unsafe right-hook turns. Note: there were no injuries or mishaps. In SF, autonomous cars presented a hazard, but not for long.  The cars will “learn” new rules for crossing bicycle lanes. And, as autonomous cars reach a critical mass, they will also grow the critical mass for bikers.

First, some history. In a book titled “The Roads Were Not Built for Cars,” author Carlton Reid notes that drivers have forgotten about the debt they owe to the bicycle: it was cyclists who lobbied, and gained, flat roads more than 100 years ago. The first standards for road surfaces and geometry were designed for cyclists.  Mobility then took an unexpected turn, and the horseless carriage “co-opted” the paved space, pushing out bicycle riders.

In the coming era of autonomous vehicles, bicycles have an opportunity to regain their lost roads, and cycle back to an earlier time.

There are several reasons why autonomous vehicles pave the way (pun intended) back to bicycles:

Safer Modes

First, there will be a resurgence of bicycle riding as autonomous vehicles make the roads safer for all modes. Unlike human drivers, autonomous cars are programmed to obey the speed limit, seek caution making right hand turns, and avoid being too proximate to any object, including bikes. The roadways will become safer and the technology will reduce the number of cyclists involved in an accident with a motor vehicle; in 2014  there were 726 needless deaths and more than 50,000 injuries.  Improved safety will encourage new segments of riders- most likely, a resurgence of older people, moms, and school age kids.

Lane Splitting

The advantages go beyond accident avoidance. Autonomous cars use the road surface more efficiently and productively. One autonomous taxi, in circulation, is predicted to take six to 10 cars off the road. And, many autonomous cars, in pontoon formation, reduce crowding and congestion. Importantly, circulating autonomous cars also create less demand for parking; that frees up the rightmost traffic lane, and reduces the dreaded “dooring”.

Today, many roads are striped for two and four lanes of vehicle traffic, but in the future, they might be restriped to accommodate more bikes and fewer cars. Grade-separated lanes are the choice of both cyclists and drivers. Separated lanes will help persuade cyclists of all stripes to participate- those wanting to commute, those choosing to recreate, and those simply getting on a bicycle for the fun of it.

Retro Modes? The Last Mile

Grade-separated lanes go the extra mile- they keep traditional bicycle riders safer, and they might also open up the roadway, so to speak, to more low-speed electric powered cycles. Electric bicycles, and their newer derivatives, have yet to find a niche, but are relatively low cost, convenient, and age-friendly. Most importantly, they could be the missing link in the first-mile, last-mile connection with futuristic public and private autonomous vehicles. The electric bicycle can link from home to “curb stop” supplanting the need for a household car(s).

The benefits of a bicycle- to be outdoors, to exercise, and to go the distance, led to the initial building of roads. These desires and benefits did not disappear in the early 1900’s. They simply got pushed away and under, as new excavations were made to pave and widen road surfaces… for cars and trucks.

Autonomous vehicles can help return the roads to an earlier vision and unleash a thoroughly advanced era of travel by bicycle.

NASCAR To Steer Autonomous Vehicle??

talkicarNASCAR might need to steer the Autonomous Vehicle….

This past year the sport continued to loose sponsors and viewers, despite the crowds at the Driver’s Crown finale in November.  It would be exciting if NASCAR could reinvent itself and recognize the coming rise of autonomous vehicles. Races can serve a vital role in new technology- they showcase advancement, bring teams of like minded engineers together, and educate/entertain the public simultaneously.

In fact, the earliest days of the autonomous car began with a race sponsored by the Department of Defense (DARPA Grand Challenge). For a few years teams came together to race in the Mojave Desert, and then the competition moved on to more urban challenges.  Many pioneers of the autonomous vehicle, like Chris Urmson, began their careers with the DARPA challenge.

Fast forward now to NASCAR races, where attendance and viewership is said to be slacking off. One explanation is that NASCAR is synonymous with sport for Baby Boomers. Boomers are a car-centric generation, and nearly 1 in 10 Boomers have worked in a job associated, at some level, with automotives. But currently, their children and grandchildren drive less and are less sentimental about it. Younger people are not motorheads- it has moved on to an internet centric generation.  

But, there are changes for NASCAR that might help bridge this gap. And, it is beginning with with challenges for electric Formula One type cars, aptly called Formula-E!  But, NASCAR is the better suited race to showcase future vehicles, because “it’s not necessarily the best car that wins. It’s the car that has done best with speed, maneuvering, fuel mileage, pit stops, and restarts after cautions.”

Imagine a future race where the vehicle that “wins” is still the first one that can cross the finish line, but does so by avoiding hazards in the road, say mattresses and sandbags. The racing autos might need to differentiate between “real” versus fake red/yellow/green signals. And, a winning car might be equipped with a backup plan, when its LIDAR bearings are purposively scrambled by the race committee. The “most winning” vehicle  will cross the finish line by neither sideswiping its neighbors, nor causing rear-end collisions. Along the way, it might be come in for a (human enabled) software pitstop or two. It is reminiscent of the DARPA challenge.

For an autonomous NASCAR race, the primary change may be recognition that auto accidents, aka “crashes” are no longer a prime-time draw. Fiery crashes against the wall, spin-outs that cause chain reactions, and crumpled metal should be reevaluated for their entertainment value- in a new era charting sports-induced concussions and injuries.  The autonomous car  is a “red flag” for this traditional type of  racing. These new vehicles are programmed to avert accidents, steer away from hazards, and cooperate with other vehicles on the roadway.

A second difference for a future NASCAR/ autonomous race is the environmental impact. Currently, NASCAR teams may use between nine and 14 sets of tires per race, which amounts to between 36 and 56 recapped tires. A single NASCAR vehicle is said to get about 5 miles per gallon. The smell of petro permeates the stands and engines roar. The autonomous car, once again, is a “red flag” to NASCAR conventions. These  future vehicles will be designed to control emissions and be silent in busy, congested and densely populated cities.

This is not to say that NASCAR and the autonomous car cannot find common ground. Even prior to DARPA, there were solar and electric powered car races, and speed was the winning criteria, as in NASCAR. The question today is how can an autonomous car bring excitement to the track, particularly if it is programmed to obey the speed limit, avoid collisions, and travel in harmony with nearby vehicles? That is to be worked out, off the course. The good news is that the result will educate/entertain people about the autonomous car, particularly if it begins, like its NASCAR roots, with vehicle models that are familiar names and nearly showroom ready.

The Collectible Car As Endangered Species

Hagerty Group- Car and Driver 2014
classic cars

The collectible car may become an endangered species. It is not for lack of Bugattis, gullwing Mercedes, and air-cooled Porsches. The reason is that there will not be enough ready buyers who want to hold on to these legacies.

There are two complementary forces at work: The first one is generational. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to fully embrace the two-car, and sometimes three and four car household.  Boomers are estimated to own 58 percent of the estimated 5 million classic cars, says a Car and Driver interview with the Hagerty Group (see image too). But, only about 3 percent of vintage cars sell at auction and these cars are “the best of the best”.  Cites the Car and Driver article, “Boomers are beginning to age out of this hobby.”

A GENERATIONAL CHANGE

But, as we note in Chapter Seven in Aging in Suburbia, the times and tastes of the next generation are not so accommodating. A front page story in the Wall St. Journal notes that the next generation, kids of the Baby Boomers, do not have the same attachment to accumulated treasures. Millennials do not want ownership of their parents’ household, and many family heirlooms are stacked up in garages.  Ironically, these heirlooms share the space with the collectible car(s), and, for the more upscale, a garage/storage off-site.

Millennials don’t seems to want the cars, and, they probably won’t have a place to store these collectible cars either. In real estate markets, they continue to shun large suburban homes in favor of smaller, more urban/close in properties. And, newer Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) properties, are typically built with parking maximums- no extra spaces for antique cars that stay stationary.

A TECHNOLOGY CHANGE

There is a second force, a complementary one, that exerts downward pressure on the market for collectible cars. Although there must have been tens of thousands of buggies and horse-drawn carriages in circulation before the 1900’s, few of them are preserved for posterity. First, they are downright unsuited for modern roads and travel- think of  how treacherous carriages seem in the Amish areas of Pennsylvania, alongside modern vehicles. Horses, who have to accommodate the hard pavements, might also wish for earlier times and trails.

As autonomous cars begin to enter the market, our roads and infrastructure must update to accommodate them and make journeys safer. For awhile, roadways may be suited for both the conventional cars and self-driving ones, but investment will tip towards newer technology.

NO FUN, NO COLLECT

Older cars will also seem less safe, and simply less fun to drive.  A vintage vehicle may have been adapted to run on unleaded gasoline (post 1990’s) but it will still tend to have white tailpipe exhaust and smell  like a petro can when the engine turns over.  If the vehicle preceded the mandatory seatbelt laws of 1969, and there is no headrest, then the front seats are likely to feel slippery and unprotected. The brakes and steering will not be as responsive as today’s vehicles, making the driving experience clunky, if not downright dangerous. With all these constraints it is not surprising that Millenials will not be celebrating the possession of their family’s old Corvette Stingray. Datsun 280Z, and even the ’57 Thunderbird.

When mobility changed from bicycles and horse-driven carriages to the gas and electric powered vehicle, there seems to have been little angst about keeping the old carriages around. And, even cars that were built pre WWII became less collectible when the Silent Generation aged and lost interest.


Perhaps TV shows and movies with wild car chase scenes will keep vintage gas powered vehicles in the forefront for a while longer, but Herbie, Hollywood’s first autonomous car, is moving in.

The Flip Side of Driver Distraction

 

Driver distraction- the flip side, considers how phones can save lives, as well as take them.

But, first, some history. Back in 2003, when cellphones were in their infancy, Finnish researchers observed that mobile phone users communicated their location 70 percent of the time (e.g., “I am now at the train station”)  compared to just 5 percent for landline users. Users no longer need to enunciate their location- a GPS does that.  What users did not know back in 2003 was that cellphones would change mobility with their two-way capability.

In 2016  we continue to ride in conventional vehicles that resemble the ones on the road in 2003.  But, how we travel in vehicles is quite different, thanks to the smartphone. The obvious change is that phones have enabled carshare services to flourish, like Uber and Lyft. But, telematics have also brought a quieter, but seismic change, to the average, solo car driver.

Lives Saved by Smartphones?

Most drivers know that they should not text, talk on phones, and drive but most seem to continue to do so. Smartphones “drive us to distraction” but they are also driving the market, faster than we realize, towards autonomous cars. A fully automated car would let passengers safely  use their phones to talk, text, and do internet searches. There is a clamor to accelerate  the timeline for autonomous cars as traffic fatalities from distracted driving increase.

The NHTSA publishes the data on traffic fatalities due to driver distraction, but we know less about lives saved  by smartphones in cars.  For example, while many accidents with distracted driving involve younger drivers, particularly the age group ages 20 to 29, we do not know if this age group still have more facility interacting with a car’s electronic devices than older people. In an intriguing article, Mental Floss posits that an earlier generation of drivers found the in-car radio to be a distraction,  as people fumbled with knob controls and listened to the broadcasts. A1934 poll by the Auto Club of NY found that 56 percent deemed that the car radio to be a “dangerous distraction.”  Over time, car radios became less problematic and, the key point is that either the radios or the drivers (or both) evolved so that drivers did not have to refocus so much their attention to use them. 

Anticipating the Road Ahead

Until recently radios were vital in cars. They brought drivers news of the road conditions and traffic…usually “on the 5s or on the 8s” and of course, in a way that was not specific to the route you might be traveling on. Today, smartphones (and dashboards that have a built-in GPS) play a vital role in keeping drivers informed about road conditions. The also assist  drivers in selecting routes, and avoiding congestion. Most significantly, they provide information so that drivers can anticipate their next turn, choose the best travel lane, and be alerted for stopped traffic. There are probably many traffic accidents avoided here….we just don’t know how to count them well.

Educational Loops

Vehicle telematics have another “saving grace.” As drivers of electric cars know, haptic-type feedback helps drivers optimize their battery useage. Similar electronics can be used to improve driver skills.  Smartphones have the capability to employ GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes  to sense if a driver is  braking or accelerating sharply, traveling over or under the speed limit, or making jerky turns. 

To date, a few insurance companies have realized the potential of haptic feedback for drivers and offer driver discounts when the phone features are turned on and recorded. THe EverQuote’s Everdrive app — rates drivers on five factors: phone use, speeding, accelerating, cornering and braking. They claim a 31% improvement after using the app. There are many other examples of in-car monitoring and two-way tracking, and they appear to significantly modify how driver’s behavior. Again, There are probably many traffic accidents avoided here….we just don’t know how to count them.

To look at the flip, it is unlikely, if you rolled back to 2003, that people expected to be doing so much talking in their cars. But, it is even more surprising that the cars, in turn, are doing so much “talking” back to drivers!  The car-radio teaches us that new hardware, at the outset, brings distraction. However, it also has the capacity to evolve and bring entirely new means to scan for safety, travel conditions, and hazards beyond the windshield.

Curb Appeal For Autonomous Cars

anairportstop

There is curb appeal, and the future of autonomous cars may depend on it. For reasons that are somewhat novel to transportation planners, curb appeal has new-found meaning. If parking issues were the unintended consequence of human driven cars, curb space might become a thorn for autonomous vehicles, if left to chance.

Fortunately, there are already lessons in developing curb appeal…and they come from an unlikely place- the airport. In a previous blog we wrote about how U.S. airports could become a proving ground for autonomous vehicles.  Autonomous vehicles have the potential to speed up ground-traffic, improve air quality, and make airport pick-ups and drop-offs less stressful.

But, surprisingly, airports provide a double-sided learning curve for automotive engineers and planners.  Today’s airports already have vital traffic control measures in place, ones that will become mandatory when there are more autonomous vehicles on the road.

OPEN CURBS

But first, think city streets: both Uber and Lyft  pick-up and drop-off  passengers in a “willy-nilly” fashion- vehicles pull over to the curb, per customer demand. The pick-up point is set by the passenger, and it might be near a busy intersection or in high-speed traffic. This passenger-set location can interrupt other traffic, cause delays, and sometimes accidents. Today, as Uber tests autonomous trip-taking in Pittsburgh, they may work out a safer protocol for ride-hailing customers.

Meanwhile, most airports have controlled this sort of situation out of necessity. In a recent talk at the Volpe Transportation Center, Professor Anthony Townsend noted that curb management will become one of several policy levers for cities as they search for ways to manage pedestrian/vehicle interactions with new technology.

AIRPORT CURBS

  1. Airports do several things “right” at the curb: First, autonomous cars will come in all shapes and sizes, just like today’s vehicles. The amount of painted curb space at airports favors, multi-passenger shuttle buses- like the hotel and rental car vans that circulate. As autonomous vehicles develop, there are vital reasons for multi-passenger vehicles to get preferential treatment. The current curb configuration at airports helps these longer vehicles glide in and out. Passengers, meanwhile, come to accept that the vehicle stops are not at their door-step, but they are marked, and frequent enough so that they will not have to walk too far.

2. Airports have learned to take their curbs seriously.  Airports assiduously monitor and patrol their curb appeal, particularly after September 11th. When vehicles linger too long, or turn off their engines, the drivers are subject to fines or towing. Major airports have security forces that enforce curb control. Their presence makes airports more secure and keeps the vehicles moving.

In a future, where autonomous vehicles circle on the road, it will be key that they stay on the network and in service.

3. Third, larger airports sometimes have porters and staff at the curb to assist passengers. Although not all passengers will need this as they disembark from their autonomous vehicle, it may be of value for older people or the handicapped. New curb based concierge services might assist passengers as they board or embark. Furthermore, note that most of the vehicles that circle airports today do not charge their passengers directly. They have worked out payment transactions off-site. Keeping the vehicles moving is the first priority.

CURB (SF STYLE)

Meanwhile,  when you depart the “orderly” world of the airport curb and travel to more conventional open streets, the lack of curb control can bring chaos and conflict.

In San Francisco, for example, teachers at a public school joined with activists to protest the painting of an open, un-metered curb section to create a no-parking, white zone for tech shuttles. Again, in San Francisco, intra-city shuttles have operated for more than 30 years, but their use of curb space has remained a hot issue since 2004 when private employers began offering regional commuter shuttles, some with 45-foot long buses.  With the arrival of the autonomous car, the curb may replace parking (think Donald Shoup) as the next premium space to be coveted, rationed, and taxed. It may have all started at the airport.

Autonomous Cars Can Speed Airports

laguardiatrafficThe advantages of fast airplane travel are being compromised by the stop-and- go vehicle traffic  in and out of major airports. The autonomous car may come to the rescue.

In the near future, autonomous cars could help travelers “fly through” the standstill road traffic encountered at major  airports. These vehicles can transform the dangerous, congested roadways for passenger  pick-ups and drop-offs.

Today, most tests of autonomous vehicles are on city streets. But, Uber, which is testing cars in Pittsburgh, PA says it hopes to drive to the airport within months. 

Airports have been inching towards autonomous vehicles for sometime. At least twelve U.S. airports use some type of automated train to connect between terminals, and, occasionally, to outside transport.  Since 2011, Heathrow Airport (UK) has been operating pod vehicles they call “autonomous cars” but they glide on a fixed closed track, not the open streets.  

On the inner roadways of airports, autonomous vehicles could replace the clutter of long-distance shuttles, limousines, taxis, etc. In the near future, autonomous vehicles would circle the terminals but then  travel to perimeter zones served with rental cars, mass transit and parking. In the distant future, they would connect with longer-distance autonomous vehicles.

The airport is a likely place to begin such innovation as civil aviation is operated by private companies, but under the auspices and safety rules of a federal agency, the FAA.  The public diffusion of autonomous cars may require a similar arrangement: close  federal regulation of public road space so that passenger trips are safe, secure, and efficient (see blog  http://www.grayhomesgreencars.com/will-autonomous-vehicles-fly/)

REDUCE CONGESTION & IMPROVE AIR QUALITY

Airport authorities  have a critical need to reduce congestion at the curb. While the number of passengers flying on airlines has grown, the road network around them has not. At LAX, for example, there is an annual volume of around 90,000 vehicles.  A recent article notes that it can take drivers in Los Angeles up to 45 minutes to loop the 1.3 miles around the terminals. Meanwhile, similar delays are encountered at LaGuardia, Washington D.C. airports, and O’Hare.

Autonomous car and bus shuttles bring advantages: they could circle airports predictably, reduce the number of vehicle trips in and out of the airport, and speed up traffic flow. In addition to saving travelers time, they will make a significant improvement to air quality, particularly since most of the travel at the airport involves short distances and frequent stops. The wind-driven hot exhaust vapor from cars and trucks is a source of considerable pollution, and autonomous vehicle operations (preferably electric ones) would help airports green up, and reduce carbon monoxide emissions.

IMPROVE TRAVELER EXPERIENCE

The autonomous car will also make airports safer for their customers, the pedestrians. Pedestrians could walk across lanes of traffic (presumably at a light or crosswalk) knowing that the oncoming vehicles would stop. Significantly, there would be fewer vehicles overall, since bus and taxi services could be consolidated.

Most importantly, new autonomous vehicles could help airport concessions meet their ADA requirements: new vehicles could be designed with the disabled in mind, with roll-on/roll-off ramps so that passengers who are less able to walk have easier access to curbside drop off.  Newly designed vehicles also provide an occasion for airports to reimagine wayfaring and signage, so that airports become more navigable to international visitors and first-time travelers.

THE PROVING GROUNDS

Airports are a cultural United Nations…a spot where people from all over the world converge. Airports also are an innovation zone, where passengers have learned to expect safe and hands-free air travel, in a highly regulated industry.

Likewise, airports could provide a safe haven where consumers can be introduced to self driving vehicles and gain confidence with its safety features. A short airport trip in an autonomous vehicle to a perimeter parking lot or taxi zone is a seamless way to introduce and diffuse the innovation.

Meanwhile, for manufacturers and regulators, the airport provides a controlled and closed environment for testing. Extensive research could be done on vehicle- to- vehicle communications, road markings, and travel under  all-weather road conditions.  The airport is a proving ground where public entities and private firms can come together to explore technology and policy needs.

REPURPOSING THE PARKING

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to airport demonstration will not be the technology of the autonomous car itself, but rather, its predecessor, the gas powered vehicle.  Major airports, like Los Angeles and Chicago  have a ringed inner layout with parking, and it generates significant income. Revenue from parking concessions also helps subsidize other travel connections, like the buses and transit needed to ferry passengers from garages to terminals.  The San Francisco Airport, which is probably at the low-end of parking revenue, indicates in its 2014/2015 annual report that 15% of its operating revenues come from parking and transportation. The LAX annual report (with Ontario), indicates that other operating income, which includes parking was just .4% of their operating revenue, but parking itself brought in $99.4 million.

It is unclear how airport authorities will make up this lost revenue, any more than federal and state authorities will offset dwindling gas taxes. But,  many airports have taken a first step and replaced short-term parking with free, “no charge”  cell-phone waiting lots. Their next step is reimagining how large parking lots might be repurposed into more valuable real estate-  perhaps hotels, convention centers and meeting space.

In a couple of months, the Uber autonomous car may reach the Pittsburgh airport. The bigger, and necessary challenge,  is driving it home to Chicago and airports beyond.

 

Elderly Drivers and Autonomous Cars- Linked

Korea-AV
Autonomous Car for Elderly?

 

Elderly drivers and autonomous cars have an oddball linkage. They share some common denominators despite their gaps in years and tech experience. Both the elderly driver and vehicle tech firms wish to avoid accidents at all cost, keep insurance providers out of the mix, and drive more defensively than offensively.

Autonomous cars are being designed for all age groups, not just the elderly, but for a myriad of reasons, they currently  behave on the road more like older drivers. There is a certain irony here since the older driver may say they have less trust in this technology than younger groups, yet be one of the first groups to benefit from using them.

SPEED NOT

Elderly drivers don’t speed for many reasons; they are afraid of being pulled over and, if so, losing their license and insurance, they want to be prepared and able to stop, and they compensate for their slower reaction time. In the same way, the current designers of autonomous cars want to keep rolling- and that means keeping accidents, like the recent Tesla auto-pilot failure, out of the limelight.

Everyone has a favorite story about the old person who barely reaches the steering wheel, gets on the freeway in the middle lane, and then proceeds to be passed on the left and right by speedier vehicles. The older driver is probably going at the posted speed limit, or slightly under it. In an area posted at 65 mph, other drivers might be doing an average of 70 mph leaving the senior in the dust.

The current crop of driverless cars will behave like the older driver- they do not exceed posted speed limits. A self-driving car can be even more exacting- and reduce speed to conform to the posted limits on yellow advisory signs. (Of course, this could change if a rogue programmer decided to ignore traffic laws or tailgate other vehicles).

WEATHER NOT:

On a bad day, a (wise) elderly driver will stay at home- rather than venture out in their car- and for now, so will the autonomous car. By bad day, we mean one where weather conditions, like heavy snow or torrential rains, obscure markings on the road bed, and make it difficult to “see”.  Automotive engineers are currently working on this problem and reducing the number of “stay-at-home” days– testing has spread from sunny California to snowy, cold Michigan and Sweden. But, like the older person who is afraid of sliding off the road in icy conditions, autonomous cars will also need, at least for the time being, to adjust to and accommodate “weather.”  That said, the technology is overtaking the skill set of many older drivers. Autonomous cars are being tested in low-light conditions, and their ability to navigate at dark is improving. For the elderly, and near-elderly, driving safely at night is often a concern.

FUNCTIONAL YES

The third connection between elderly drivers and autonomous cars can be characterized as more of a design factor, less one of engineering. Elderly drivers often favor plain vanilla, sensible, coupes and older model sedans. The sporty “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” is a rare find. Most older drivers do not use their car to make a statement about their lifestyle or income level. They favor functional cars that go from “point A” to “point B”.

The current crop of autonomous cars has the same sensibility. The Google car is said to resemble a jelly bean, and other test models are small and boxy. Function has overtaken form, at least for now. It may portend a sea change: Mobility from “point A” to “point B” will be the goal, and the vehicle that does it will not need to glam with extra trim and chrome. There may be even less glam, more functionality, as  individual/household cars evolve to shared ones.

SUMMING UP:

The elderly are likely to be one of the first markets for autonomous cars- along with other people with limited vision, and handicapped adults who have difficulty driving today. They will not be looking for a sports car, but rather, a way to safely and reliably to get around. The autonomous car will be a safe choice- and a reliable one. It will less resemble a “car” as we describe it today, and more a mobility aid and travel companion. The picture at the top of the blog gives a hint of things to come: this is a Korean designed self-driving vehicle prototype; to some, it resembles a crossover- that is a crossover of  a scooter and a  motorized wheelchair.  

Meanwhile, future autonomous cars may be “cars” in name only. A new type of mobility may be on the horizon- one that is less about sport, as in motor-sport- and more about safety, speed limits, and security. For the present, the person sitting in that slow car ahead of you could either be an old timer, or a  young techie monitoring the LIDAR array.

Autonomous Cars & Sprawl??

sprawlThe Baby Boomers are the first generation to “sprawl”- that includes the size of their homes, their travel distances to work, their car ownership, and even their waistlines!

Now there is concern that autonomous cars (self driving) will make sprawl even worse. A recent story in the WSJ, for example, speculates whether the savings from not owning a personal car will benefit Millennials will want to escape their cramped urban apartments for “bigger spreads, further away.” (Note: the full article presents both pros and cons).

There are several reasons to challenge the future relationship between driverless cars and urban sprawl. A simplistic answer is that if  “hands-free”  was the key factor, then millions of American commuters would already be taking the bus or train to reach their far-away homes. But, generally they don’t. It is estimated that ‘only’ about 600,000 Americans have extreme commutes of at least 90 minutes each way. 

CITIES AND SPRAWL

There are vital reasons why the “extreme commute” may not happen, even when autonomous cars come to market:

The first reason is that cities are going to be better places to live and they will offer a better lifestyle than today. They will be less car-centric and there will be fewer reasons to own private cars. Cities will also become safer for other transport modes, like walking and biking, since autonomous cars are programmed to obey the speed limit and stop signs. Most importantly, they bring new opportunities to repurpose parking spaces and parking lots. This transformation might be a boon to real estate developers and should increase the green-space, as well as the supply of urban housing.

The Baby Boomers are a cohort that enjoy car-travel, and they have matured  along with an auto industry that has became more reliable and affordable over time. This contrasts with younger generations, who have been weaned on computers, and lean towards life styles that are less car-centric. No one has quite nailed what this means to a cohort of Digital Natives, but there seem to be agglomeration effects. Instead of spending a leisurely afternoon driving to the out-of-town outlet mall or golf course like Boomers, Digital Natives might be more inclined to meet up at a local dive and then take short trips together around the neighborhood. So, while autonomous cars could take them “further” their choices might be closer.

COMMUTE  BUDGETS, TIME BUDGETS

The second reason to question the wisdom of long commutes via autonomous cars is more technical. It is associated with “commute budgets”.  As the term implies, people have fixed resources or  “budgets”; they generally do not exceed one hour of commute travel time per day. This axiom is associated with a transportation researcher called Yacov Zahavi. Athough Zahavi’s work was done in the 1970s and 1980s,  he discovered  across different cultures, and different geographic zones, people did not generally exceed the commute budget. It was something like a law of nature.

(Note: Zahavi observed, before Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), that commuters were unlikely to switch from cars to public transit because of the time-tradeoffs.)

In the future, long distance commuters could exceed the one hour “commute budget”, if travel was done with autonomous luxury and autonomous speed. That is the fear. But, one of the main deterrents is that this travel budget then bumps up into the daily “time budget” which is still fixed at 24 hours.  When commuters spend more minutes per day traveling to and from a distant suburb, they forfeit time spent on other activities.  Instead of sitting in a vehicle, people might prefer to do things such as coach their kid’s soccer game, go to the gym or get on  a bicycle for exercise, and even participate in person at civic activities (think bowling alone). So, while the autonomous car may let people continue to text or work while they travel and perhaps even be VR at the soccer game, it will not substitute for participating in real activities.

Beyond the travel time budget and the 24 hours activity-time budget, there is a third resource constraint: Almost all households maintain a transportation budget. In the U.S. today, the average household spends about 29 percent of its income on travel expenses. While the marketplace has yet to set a rate of “cost per mile” for autonomous travel, longer travel will cost more and potentially tip the economic balance between housing and transportation expense. It will also be subject to state and federal taxes, akin to the tax on gasoline today.

TRAVEL AND HAPPINESS

The third factor that will suppress excessive travel has to do with “happiness”. Even if autonomous cars could bring longer commute trips to more distant homes, travel is a derived activity-it is what “we do” to do something else. There is an interesting subset of research correlating wellness, happiness, and travel time.  Joe Cortright at City Commentary  reports on the literature between quality of life and daily commute time. Behavioral economists find that time spent commuting has the lowest positive rating of all daily activities. Longer commutes are also associated with a high incidence of obesity, back pain, and other health impacts. Even if your autonomous vehicle was super comfortable, these human impacts might continue to plague the trip.

SPRAWL NOT?

Note that the behavioral impacts come from the time spent in the vehicle, not necessarily the traffic. Time budgets are complicated. So, one of the unusual findings from the behavioral research is that more traffic congestion is NOT negatively related to people’s sense of well being and satisfaction.  While this needs further investigation, it is a clue to the future. Perhaps autonomous cars will not help people flee the city.

People generally see some benefits to being in a place congested with traffic- think getting to/from a sporting event, rock concert, school travel, or airport. It is all about being social- not about trekking long distances to reach a greener pasture. The Digital Natives may have already discovered that, and are far ahead of other generations.

Meanwhile, urban settings of the future will appear very different when residents can be comfortable and safe transversing on foot or bicycle, but also be able to seamlessly summon a vehicle on demand. Since the future cost for this transportation has not been established, we do not know the economic constraints (think transportation and time budgets). But, we do know, that people  contemplating long commutes still have to wrestle with a 24 hour time budget, at least for now.

 

Autonomous Cars for Boomers- Model 2016

Baby Boomers will be surprised to learn that their personal autonomous car has been invented…and it’s called the “TNC, Model 2016.”

Lest the picture deceive, TNC, stands for Transportation Network Company, an acronym for services like Uber, Lyft, Lift Hero and other ride share firms. Ironically, both Uber and Lyft are investing in the technology for autonomous cars. While that technology is under beta testing….more conventional TNC service will suffice for the coming years.

A SPRAWLING DEMAND :

The demand for autonomous cars, via TNC, has to do with the geographic sprawl of Baby Boomers. This is the first generation to settle far from urban areas, and develop homes without spatial links to transit or rail. Because of sprawl and low density, it has been uneconomical to provide transit service, vis a vis road building. Only 17 percent of Boomers live in dense cities with mass transportation. An estimated 70 percent live in areas served by limited or no public transportation (see references, Chapter One, Aging in Suburbia). The remainder have settled in semi-urban areas, where it has been difficult, until now, to solve “first mile/last mile” transportation issues so most Boomers drive.

Meanwhile, cabs/taxi service has been scarce and expensive; spotting a taxi driving on these suburban roads is like encountering an endangered species in the wild. Currently, the popularity of the TNCs has made taxis even less accessible there. Taxi drivers are said to be circulating less and congregating more in places where there is reduced TNC competition like airports. It would be unlikely that a suburban resident could ever “hail” a taxi- that is flag down a vehicle just passing by through the neighborhood. Yet, essentially, that is what a TNC app, enabled by a smart-phone, makes possible. The TNC may be the leveler between urban and suburban transportation.

OLDER TNC DRIVERS:

Meanwhile, a TNC presence is growing in suburbia… in many cases because Boomers are signing up as occasional drivers. It is estimated that a quarter of Uber drivers are age 50 and older.  Boomers approaching retirement age find that the gig economy provides them with a spare source of income (next avenue). It also helps them get out and meet other people. And, since Boomers are a generation that generally likes cars, and favors time on the road, driving for Uber or Lyft is an agreeable choice.

Meanwhile, Boomers have a growing demand for an “autonomous car” service. Uber even made a promotional video to explain the benefits.

SEEKING A RIDE:

An essential reason has to do with the age of the Boomer population. Today, the youngest Boomers are age 52 and the oldest are 72. A difficulty driving safely at night is one of the first onsets of advancing age.  Yet it is in the evening that people throw parties, patronize the arts and concerts, and go out to eat. One only has to visit the matinee performance of a Broadway show to understand the demographics of those who do not drive after-dark.

So, having a “designated driver” at night is likely to keep Boomers active and engaged…throughout the evening. Although they will not be taking an autonomous car, the TNCs can meet the Boomer’s current need to keep busy and engaged after dark. Over time, the Boomers will seek their “designated driver” for more occasions, expanding from service at night to more daytime trips.

Medical trips are a second arena where the “autonomous car”, via TNC, is making inroads among Boomers. As they age, Boomers need a way to get to and from doctor’s visits, medical centers, and hospitals and these trips are the fastest growing source of their travel demand.  Driving your personal car from suburbia, often to a large medical complex in a more urban area, is not fun. There’s the anxiety about the visit, the set-aside time to park the vehicle, and, of course, and the for-profit, per/hour hourly parking charge levied by most medical centers. But the real crunch, and need for the autonomous vehicle comes during the ride home. The driver, in this case the patient, is probably tired, and may be somewhat impaired by a prescription drug or pain reliever. It would be useful if someone, or something else, bore the responsibility for a safe trip back to suburbia.

MORE RIDES, MORE BENEFITS:

The future autonomous car brings other benefits for aging Boomers who settled in aging suburbs. The autonomous vehicle can be regulated to reduce traffic congestion, obey speed limits, and make the streetscape safer for pedestrians and bicyclists too. That can only bode well for Boomers who need to stay healthy and fit outdoors, without driving to exercise and spending hours at the gym.

It will seem odd to Boomers, who have spent so many years of their lives in their car, that they can now liberate themselves from it. But, as they gain years, they will need to shed old habits. Keeping fit, healthy, and socially engaged will take priority for them over almost anything else.