Tag Archives: safety

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.

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  https://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.