Category Archives: autonomous car

Micro-Mobility Tipping Point? 2020…

Micro-Mobility
Tipping Point for Micro-Mobility?

In 2018 micro-mobility takes place on Limes, Bonzos, and Birds.

In 2000 people travelled on Xebras, Kewet Buddies, and G-Wiz. The Human Transporter, otherwise known as the Segway, came to market in 2001 and  the Velib, the first generation of French bike-share, launched in 2007.

So, while micro-mobility is being reinvented in 2018, it retains a penchant for short perky brand names. And, that reinvention takes place in the shadow of previous start-ups.

This blog is informed by attendance at two Fall 2018 events: a micro-mobility street fair at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. followed by a sit-down conference with vendors, government officials, and academics.  I have worked on micro-mobility for over ten years in Los Angeles and based on that experience and the recent conference, make a few observations. It is noteworthy that Kendall Square, the location for these demos, was also the launching pad for a successful transportation technology, the ZipCar, launched in the year 2000.

2000-2018:

Specifically, what has changed since 2000, and will today’s crop of micro-mobility players achieve wider success?  Were the initial failures a function of the technology, the marketplace, regulations, or some combination of these factors? Will these factors repeat, or have there been significant changes in the transportation arena?  

First, we present the issues favoring new growth, and then, the counter arguments.  Note, we do not delve into the business practices or failures of individual companies, for example, Sidecar, which arguably preceded Uber but folded.

An Argument for Micro-Mobilty: What Has Changed in Two Decades

1. RIDESHARE: The most significant advancement for micro-mobility has taken place within  conventional automotives. Uber and Lyft have changed the dynamics of first and last mile travel, and uprooted taxi providers. They have also made it clear that private industry, not public agencies, stand at the forefront of leading change in the transportation field.

Although they only account for two percent of total trip taking today, Uber and Lyft have changed, practically overnight, the perception that it is OK to not have a personal vehicle and rely on your own car for every trip. Per conference speaker Assaf Biderman, a researcher and  founder of Superpedestrian, rideshare has set an important precedent for micro-mobility because 50 percent of trips are 5 miles or less.

2. NEW MARKET: GROWTH of the CHINESE/ INTERNATIONAL VEHICLE:

Tiny cars, like Bonzo, used to be called neighborhood electric vehicles, and have reached only niche markets in the U.S.. That has not been the case overseas. Sales of low-speed small electric cars experienced considerable growth in China due to their affordability and flexibility.  In 2016, China sold over 700,000 units in just ten months. In China these vehicles can be driven without a driver’s license. Demand for tiny electric cars incentivizes better battery technology and recharge options, but also spurs the need to reduce the width of residential zoned traffic lanes- a key issue for safe micro-mobility.

3. ZIPCAR & APPS:  While not a micro-transit service, per se, ZipCar was launched in 2000 and has arguably been the foundation for transportation ventures like rideshare. It has also helped legitimize spin-offs for short-term, on-demand car hire services. Most critically, ZipCar laid the groundwork for smartphone based, app-driven mobile services. There is currently no comprehensive Mobility As a Service  (MaaS) App in the U.S. that integrates the time and location of micro-mobility vehicles with traditional modes but it is under development. MaaS software will help micro-mobility reach new users and become more mainstream with door-to-door trip planning.

4. AUTONOMOUS/ELECTRIC: There has been growing recognition that rideshare was the first wave of disruption in the transportation industry, and the second wave will be even more extreme as autonomous vehicles enter the vehicle mix.  Meanwhile, advancements in electric batteries are making it more likely that the autonomous fleets will be electric, and an electric infrastructure benefits both bikes and scooters.

An Argument Against Micro-Mobility: What has Not Changed Over Two Decades

1. CAR CULTURE: At the Cambridge conference, Josh Westerhold from Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi made a compelling case that personal transportation (i.e. car ownership) is not driven by efficiency. Meanwhile, automotive marketing is the largest category of advertising and topped $47 billion worldwide in 2015. For the near future, the automobile industry will continue to promote the desirability of single vehicle ownership, and there will continue to be high levels of vehicle ownership, on the order of 8 cars for every 10 Americans.

2. REGULATION/RULE MAKING: Although Uber and Lyft have been disruptive to the taxi industry, state and local governments have been slow to react and resolve entirely new issues like curb space, driver screening, and sidewalk sharing. Curb space and public safety are also vital issues for micro mobility. At the Cambridge conference, Joseph Barr, the Cambridge Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation, observed that cities will need to rebalance their budgets as micro mobility reduces revenue from traditional sources like road taxes and parking.

3. WEATHER:  While climate change has often been a rallying cry for micro mobility, more immediate climate issues have not been fully factored. While small cars, like  Bonzo, offer some protection from inclement weather, it is not clear that they will operate on ice or snow. We do not know if regular commuters will rethink taking a scooter or bicycle when the weather turns inclement or cold.

4. DELIVERIES: Although cars sit idle 95% of day, vehicle owners rationalize the need for one because  they are a necessity for moving packages, groceries, and shuttling children around. To reduce the need for cars and trip generation, alternative means for package delivery and family space need to spring up.

5. DEMOGRAPHICS:  Finally, the audience at the Cambridge conference seemed to rally around a particular problem:  today’s micro-mobility options favor younger people, and particularly those who are single and without families. The emphasis on electric scooters, dock-less bicycles, and repurposing sidewalks does not serve other age groups, and in particular the elderly.

Save Our Sidewalks” or SOS as the Bird speaker, Hannah Smith quipped, requires the company to place ‘bird watchers’ in the field and work with municipalities to achieve better, safe, shared streets. The promise of micro mobility is not so new, but the problems (and potential)  it brings are not necessarily ones that were anticipated by existing, on-the-shelf, transportation master plans.

When for Autonomous Vehicles… Follow the Horse

The Rapid Adoption of A New Mobility in NY

 

Many of the uncertainties surrounding Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) circle around dates. “When will AVs move from pilot tests to the open road,” and  “when will they outnumber conventional vehicles?” There is a lot riding on “when”. How can cities that plan transportation projects on a twenty or thirty years cycle evaluate future transit projects like rail when  the “when” is unclear?

Often radically new inventions, like the AV, have to lay-in- wait until components of the technology catch up. The Picturephone, for example, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair and AT&T showed a prototype in the 1960s. But, picture vision, like Skype, did not become mainstream until advancements were achieved in over-the-air bandwidth and video compression.

Similarly, remote-controlled AVs debuted in the 1920’s, but it took technological advancements in the 1980s to make them scalable. The functional vehicle required fast computing, computer vision, video cameras, and thereafter, neural processing networks and advanced sensors. We are now at the point where companies, specifically  Google,  have logged 5 million miles on the road and 5 billiion more on simulators.

A Problem to be Solved:

But, to get to the next stage, and solve “when” the technology must either create a problem to be solved, or solve an existing problem. There are useful parallels for problem solving from the time, over a hundred years ago, when the transition was made from horse and carriage to the human driven vehicle (HDV). Many people are surprised at how quickly HDVs displaced horses, particularly in urban areas. But, that’s because, as we will see, the technology was a problem solver.

First, some perspective. At the turn of the century, there were 21 million horses in the U.S.  and only about 4,000 automobiles. But, by 1908, in just eight years, the number of cars surpassed the number of horses in New York City. In more rural areas the diffusion was slower, but by 1922 horses were all but phased out, except in special applications. One of the key factors here was not a lack of interest, but often the absence of infrastructure, namely paved roads.

Infrastructure:

The human driven vehicle (HDV) required an infrastructure quite distinct from the horse and carriage.  Cars operated on paved roads, with painted lanes, signalization, and traffic rules. It is not widely known that a smaller technology, the bicycle, came first and helped transition roadways from rutted road or cobblestone to smooth, bituminous surfaces.

It is likely that we already have that smaller technology in place for the AV. Smartphones enable communication between drivers, vehicle sensors, and maps. The phone also has a different purpose: it is widely used in cars for ‘infortainment’, such that drivers may welcome the transition to AVS so that they can continue to text and talk more safely.

Efficiency:

During the transition from horses to cars, the wealthy acquired the first horseless carriages.  It was a status symbol. However, the real adoption took place, function-to-function. Freight-haulage was one of the later functions, probably because early cars did not have the horsepower, literally .

In the case of autonomous vehicles, freight shippers are on the leading edge because of opportunities to save time and reduce a reliance on drivers.  Autonomous cars may also appeal to suburban commuters, not because they are wealthy, but because they might help solve the problems of spending an average of 52 minutes a day stuck in traffic.

Resources:

The transition from horses to car vastly disrupted the supply chain for farmers and agriculture. A single horse required five acres of hay and grain annually, so vast tracts of farmland were reserved for growing, then transporting, horse feed.

The autonomous car, in this case an electric one, will likewise upend the supply chain. It will greatly reduce carbon emissions if solar energy or wind power are sources for generating the electricity. The electric AV will also significantly reduce emissions wrought by the extended  supply chain to drill, transport, refine, and store oil.

Public Health (1):

Public health is often cited as the core issue explaining why horse-driven transportation met a fast demise, and why cities were quick to adopt  human driven vehicles.

The millions of horses that pulled carriages and moved good and services left behind gigantic volumes of urine and waste.  Each day, the average horse produced 45 pounds of dung and a gallon of urine. Horses often died in service on the streets and their carcasses blocked traffic until they could be carted away.

The resulting public health issues ranged from noxious smells, horse dung passed on the shoes of pedestrians, flies, vermin, and airborne diseases.

Compared to horses, gas powered cars have fewer negative externalities, even with their massive C02 footprint. Electric cars will significantly reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. They will also reduce approximately $190 billion each year in health care costs associated with accidents.

The AV also brings two other distinct advantages under the rubric of public health. First, these cars are quiet and will reduce  decibel levels in public spaces; noise reductions may bring  health benefits. Another improvement, particularly for mental health, may emerge when a transportation mode decreases stress, anxiety, and road-rage.

Public Health (2) :

The incentive in 1900 to move from horses to human driven vehicles had a safety aspect. Although they seem quaint and relatively slow, horse-drawn wagons were not stable and accident prone. Horse and pedestrian fatalities were also common. About the same number of people were killed in New York City in 1900 in horse-pedestrian collisions, as were killed in 2015 by car-pedestrian interactions. Considering the momentous change in population, horses were a clear danger to those on foot.

Although the recent death of a pedestrian in Arizona by an autonomous vehicle  is still topical, people overlook that on that same day (March 19, 2018), 120 people died in automobile related incidents. The push to safety, expressed in campaigns like Vision 2020  is likely to propel the technology. Today, 94% of today’s accidents are attributed to human error. In 2016 there were more than 37,000 fatalities plus  6,827 pedestrian and bicycles deaths. Worldwide, 1.2 million people lose their lives in automobile accidents.  This may be the largest man-made public health crisis we have ever faced.

Conspicuous Consumption Sea-Change?

To the inquiry  of ‘when’ the autonomous vehicle will go mainstream and the problems it will solve, we add a  final footnote.

Wealthy people were  the first to adopt the human operated vehicle, and car ownership was initially known as “the rich man’s toy.”  Cars have continued to be a status symbol, fueled by advertising, at least until now.

Over the next decade there could be a sea-change. Since they began just six or seven years ago, rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have reduced the need, and sometimes the desire, to own personal vehicles. Few rideshare passengers care about the type of vehicle that picks them up; it is the convenience and ease of use that matters. Scooters, a more recent entry, are also shifting perceptions. It is important to watch these trends, because urban mobility could operate in the future more as a service, like electricity or water.

If that is the case, AVs could roll out quickly.  They are to future cities what human driven vehicles (HDV)  are to horses.

 

The Next Big Car App

 

Solving the Parking Crisis in Manhattan- May, 1929. theboweryboyshistory.com

What if you could use your smartphone to make your car trip safer and faster, increase road capacity, and pave the way for autonomous vehicles?

A prototype already exists on our phones; it’s the app that helps drivers locate off-street parking.  Some familiar names  are Spot Hero,  Parking Panda, WhereiPark, BestParking, ParkMe and ParkWhiz, but there are more.

Prior to apps, economists led by Donald Shoup  shook up the staid parking business with real-time applications of supply and demand pricing.  Programs like SF Park, reduce both search time and congestion. Pricing algorithms are based on inputs such as the past occupancy level, block size, time, day of week, and so forth. 

Now there is an opportunity to bring a new wave of improvements  through smartphones and location-aware sensors. 

GUIDED PARKING GROWS:

Guided parking apps are still evolving. Simply put, a driver enters her destination before  starting the vehicle trip, and is then routed to proximate parking places, based on preferences for cost and convenience.Upscale car manufacturers, like BMW, are already integrating Parkmobile functions into some of their dashboards . Or, the driver simply reserves a parking space before they get on the road. 

These apps are important because they change the behavior of drivers and make each trip they take more like rideshare.  Drivers do not circle aimlessly hoping to find street parking, they have an upfront knowledge of the full trip cost, and many times they are able to shorten the travel time, even allowing for the last leg on foot. It sounds like a lot, but the changes are subtle…. they sum to a more efficient use of road-travel. An IBM study estimated that up to 30 percent of traffic in a city may be caused by drivers searching for a parking spot and Imrix estimates that American drivers waste 17 hours per year in search of a space.

CHANGING EVEN MORE SPACES: 

Meanwhile, the parking apps also begin to prepare the public for autonomous vehicles. When the guided parking app is programmed to use surface lots and indoor structures, it frees up meters and curb space. Public policy needs to follow suit, and slowly reduce or eliminate street parking. This is vital because curb space is the essential enabler for future transportation: rideshare, demand based transit, and autonomous vehicles.

It may be a while before older drivers, like Baby Boomers, embrace parking apps that guide them to a surface lot or structure. But, there are plentiful reasons why younger people may enjoy them. First, the apps blend transportation with connectivity….just like an extension of the smartphones they live by. Second, being guided to a parking spot is sustainable….it helps to reduce congestion and carbon emissions. And, like rideshare, it can alleviate some of the stress and unpredictability of driving alone.

REDISCOVERING URBAN SPACE

The parking innovation is favored by two additional factors:

The first is the growing surplus of retail space and commercial frontage. As online shopping expands, the need for store-fronts shrinks. Before smartphones, commercial development sprawled along urban strips that encouraged drivers to park for free. Excess store-fronts may bring a return to denser, multi-use shopping centers that favor a more contemporary, leisurely outing centered around foot traffic, bicycles and scooters. The parking structure might have stores at ground-level, and for those needing special assistance, pickup and drop-off by a dedicated shuttle vehicle.

A second trend is also a positive: the app can free up street-side parking and  help foster open lanes. The right most travel lane could then be re-purposed for other modes of transportation, like scooters, bicycles, and motorized wheelchairs, as well as reclaiming the all-important travel curb. For many cities, the real policy issue will not be the supply and demand of parking spaces but rather, the loss of revenue from street side meters and pay-by-space.

While it may seem futuristic, smart mobile applications have already become a standard in the car. Drivers now depend on Waze and Google Maps for navigation and traffic updates.  They use pre-billed transponders to speed through toll booths.   And, when they choose not to drive, the smartphone is the enabler for  Uber or Lyft.

The growing use of smartphone apps for guided parking will add to this list. They are squarely built upon people’s familiarity and trust that telecommunications improves trip taking.

Robots, Traffic Lights & Autonomous Cars

Johannesburg, photo by W. Riedel, 2011.

Robots, traffic lights, and autonomous cars have a lot in common. 

Ask a South African about Robots, and they will point to the humble traffic signal.  Robot Policemen was the name they gave to  the first traffic signals.  Over time, the name got truncated.  

Modern traffic signals are actually catching up to the name. Traffic signals will be an important milestone, past and future, for the autonomous vehicle.  By coincidence, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the interconnected traffic signal and the 103rd year of the electric one.

For just a moment, imagine that you were a driver in 1917. Engineers needed to earn your trust that these new signals would function correctly. If the engineers were wrong, or if the electricity that powered them failed, a collision would surely result.

The handiwork of the engineers could not stand alone. It also required laws and enforcement so that drivers and pedestrians  could share a common framework. The public had to agree to accept the change. Meanwhile, the technology was further codified by insurance regulations. There needed to be clear enforceable rules so that complete strangers, invisible inside cars to each other, could agree when to stop and go.

In 2027, ten years from now, there will be even more pronounced similarities between a robot and the traffic signal. By then, the passengers, formerly called drivers, will have to put their faith in electronic controls. An autonomous vehicle will not proceed until the signal is cleared, just as the driver in today’s conventional car knows  not to step on the gas pedal until the light turns green.

Traffic signals are evolving into a robotic mode, perhaps ahead of cars. Some signals in Pittsburgh, Pa. operate on an adaptive traffic signal system that uses artificial intelligence to change the signal on the fly. Uniquely, each signal is decentralized, and makes its own timing decisions, diverging from the signal standard of the past century. The benefits are less idling and fewer tailpipe emissions.

Similar advanced signaling may also be coming soon to a car near you. Audi and BMW have announced features that count down the time remaining until a traffic light turns green.  In an Audi vehicle, the number reads out on the instrument cluster and the heads-up display. The sensor can also determine whether the driver, at his current speed, will need to stop at a signaled intersection. Las Vegas was the first US city to agree to pilot the technology, and it requires users to have both a new Audi and an Internet like subscription in the vehicle.

Learning to program connected traffic signals used to be one the most mathematically complex aspects of civil engineering. Enabling vehicles, not drivers, to process the traffic signal is a major step on the road to autonomous vehicles. Newer signals are programmed through AI, as robots are.

One hundred years ago, society worried what would happen “if” the traffic light failed and the electricity went down. One hundred years later, drivers  will have an advanced system they must, anew, come to trust.

 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Driver Distraction

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is the visionary title of a book by former NYU Professor and media guru, Neil Postman. Postman was writing about film and TV, not about traffic fatalities.  He could not have imagined that  “Amusing Ourselves to Death” would be a literal title that described our roadways. It is just beginning.

The road to autonomous cars will have more casualties, as we clamor for entertainment, and demand to travel with smartphones and voice assistants.  BMW and Mini are about to introduce the Alexa to automobiles.  Cadillac and Audi will sell vehicles with Stage 2 or 3 hands-free driving.  In the not so distant future, companies might pay to send in-vehicle ads and promotions to drivers, based on knowledge of the destination. Drivers may welcome this if the ads offset their travel cost, similar to the business model used by over-the-air TV. There is synergy between cars, phones, and messages.

The synergy is easy to understand.  Within the closed confines of a car, conversation fills the space. It can seem as natural to talk with someone over the phone, as it feels to chat with the passenger sitting beside us, or in the back seat. Drivers don’t make a distinction between remote conversations and the ones they have with passengers, even though the cognitive processing skills differ. More obviously, they know that passengers react to the road…they pause, they modulate their tone of voice, and sometimes they even cry out, should they observe slowing traffic or dangerous road conditions. Passengers provide both verbal and non-verbal traffic cues, and that makes driving with a passenger safer than speaking with someone remotely, at the other end of the smartphone.

Drivers have a hard time grasping that driving and dialing are conflicting tasks. Hands free /bluetooth communications makes drivers feel safe, since they keep their hands on the wheel. They do not recognize that hands-free is not cognitive free: there is a split second shifting of focus between the conversation and the road. Most of the time, if drivers are experienced with both the road and their phones, simple, basic verbal exchanges (yes/no/when) do not seem to cause accidents. However, this assumption will be tested further as Amazon introduces its Alexa voice assistant into 2018 BMW cars and minis.  

It is noteworthy that while the diffusion of Bluetooth devices has increased and new cars have gained many more factory-installed safety features, there has still been an uptick in traffic fatalities. Between 2014 and 2016 there was a 14% increase in traffic deaths. The cause is not clear, but a common attribution is that one in four fatalities is linked to the phone.

We are now moving from an era with hands-on-the-wheel to one where messaging will be more omnipresent. Recall that the first traffic death in an autonomous vehicle occurred when a Tesla driver traveled at high speed, watching a movie. The driver failed to respond, although it was estimated, ex post, that he had 10 seconds to take back the wheel before colliding with a truck that crossed his path.

A new generation of cars, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 sedan, allow the driver to be in semi-autonomous mode, but with eyes on the road. An eye-tracking camera is mounted to the dashboard. A different system from Audi goes one step further and allows the driver to take their eyes off the road if the vehicle is on a divided road with traffic speeds under 40 mph.  Audi touts (per the WSJ)  the advantages:  “drivers can turn their attention to  “things like “ answer their email, write text messages.. or plan for their vacation.”

Spoiler: The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)  is reviewing the self-driving Audi and has not decided if the car is road-ready.

Whether the Cadillac or the Audi models succeed, drivers continue to sit forward  and face the windshield. To escape boredom, these drivers will surely spend more time on their smartphones. Spending more smartphone time will also justify their productivity; they can take the office with them as they travel.

In the short run, smartphones will rule. We should not expect strong legislation and public education, like the kind that greatly reduced traffic fatalities from drinking and driving. Policy makers, perhaps early adopters themselves, will be reluctant to regulate hands-free.

The NTSB may still weigh in, but owners of semi-autonomous cars will be setting a new trend. They will introduce  brand new entertainment systems to vehicles, and speed up the frequency and rate of smartphone use. If drivers are more connected and less aware, their remote vehicles will need to be more responsive. Of course, current vehicles are still in beta testing so some drivers will unwittingly amuse themselves to death. Meanwhile, other connected devices like the Alexa, will make driving less tedious but they still lack the eyes and ears of a fellow passenger.

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.