Cruise control is only the beginning. If a Rhode Island pilot program gets off the ground, the state could emerge as a leader in the area of self-driving cars. Fully autonomous vehicles, or AVs, would benefit those who don’t drive due to visual impairments and other issues. But how will the technology evolve? And are drivers comfortable with the idea? PBN spoke with Lloyd Albert, AAA Northeast senior vice president of public and government affairs.
PBN: You have said that there is – understandably – fear around this concept of self-driving cars. What should drivers know?
ALBERT: Attitudes are steadily changing. Just a year ago, a survey by AAA found that 78 percent of U.S. drivers were fearful of riding in a self-driving car. Today, that number is down to 63 percent. Motorists need to keep in mind that semi-autonomous features already exist in many cars – automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, self-parking assist among them – and that the transition to fully self-driving vehicles will be an evolving process. AAA continues to urge policymakers to also address the significant cybersecurity issues surrounding the introduction of AV technologies … critical for public acceptance.
PBN: What does the timeframe look like for Rhode Island in terms of participation in a pilot program?
ALBERT: The Rhode Island Transportation Innovation Partnership, a collaboration of state and local partners led by the R.I. Department of Transportation, seeks to establish a pilot program to test automated, multi-passenger vehicles to serve Providence’s urban core. Although no date is specified, the intention is to issue a request for proposal that helps position the state at the forefront of mobility testing. Details can be found at www.ridot.gov/TRIP.
PBN: What are the benefits of self-driving vehicles?
ALBERT: With studies estimating that 94 percent of all crashes result from human error … automakers and safety advocates agree that fully autonomous vehicles requiring no human intervention hold extraordinary promise. Of course, that belief rests on the assumption that the technology in AVs has been stringently tested and meets the high standards automakers are held to by federal regulators.
Benefits to AVs include the enhancement of mobility for those no longer able to drive. When you add to that improvements in congestion mitigation, shorter commute times and reduced carbon emissions (from fewer cars on the road), autonomous vehicles could create a new and exciting paradigm for American drivers.
PBN: How do they work? Will drivers have to pay attention at all?
ALBERT: Telematic systems in the car connect the vehicle-generated data to a remote source via wireless technology. Features [such as] lane-deviation correction, speed control and automatic braking use radar, lidar, cameras and a full complement of sensors for obstacle detection and crash avoidance. These technologies, together with pinpoint GPS data, form a reliable system that not only allows the vehicle to navigate accurately … but also reacts appropriately to vehicles, bicycles, people and other obstacles that share the driving landscape.
As cars equipped with semi-autonomous features [such as] Tesla’s Autopilot or Volvo S90’s Pilot Assist become more commonplace, a driver will let the car do much of the work but be ready to assume control in an emergency. When fully autonomous vehicles eventually become the norm, you may well be riding home from work in a car with no accelerator, steering wheel or brake pedal – all while watching your favorite Netflix series on the vehicle’s widescreen TV.
PBN: When is it expected we will see self-driving cars as part of our everyday lives, like smartphones?
ALBERT: There’s a broad range of opinion. … Many experts believe we are still 15-20 years away. … Yet already, testing of fully autonomous vehicles has been ongoing in places [such as] Pittsburg, San Francisco and in Boston’s Seaport district. And while traditional automakers [such as] Ford and General Motors are aggressively pursuing AV solutions, it’s technology-driven players [such as] Waymo, nuTonomy, Uber and Lyft [that] are creating a sense of urgency in what is becoming an increasingly crowded marketplace. One can only hope that government and private industry will keep up with this torrid pace and ensure that personal mobility never comes at the expense of safety.
Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributor.