Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, presented by the global law firm Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to full autonomy.
1. Crash into me, part two
The biggest hurdle to autonomous vehicle deployment isn’t strictly technological, but philosophical: How safe is “safe enough”?
Now, if that threshold is merely the stastical equivalent of a human driver, it demands society abide an equally poor safety record. But as policymakers and the public continue to reel in the wake of a fatal collision in Arizona involving an autonomous vehicle, it’s clear that the technology has been given no such pass, even—and especially—as the overwhelming majority of driverless-related crashes have been the singular fault of human drivers.
Just last week we wrote in this space: “When an autonomous vehicle is involved in a collision, it’s almost always the fault of a human driver.” That wasn’t anecdote, but the sum of four years’ worth of California incident reports.
Now we have one more data point to include: Apple’s self-driving fleet sustained its very first crash this week, and the collision wasn’t the faulf of the car’s software. In a DMV report, the company blamed a secondary human-operated vehicle for rear-ending its self-driving Lexus SUV.
According to the Verge, which obtained the accident report: “The Apple car, a modified Lexus RX450h SUV carrying special equipment and sensors, was traveling at just 1 mph while preparing to merge onto the Lawrence Expressway in Sunnyvale when a Nissan Leaf rear-ended it going around 15 mph. Apple’s Lexus and the Leaf sustained damage, but neither car’s passengers received any injuries.”
One mph is an objectively slow pace at which to join highway traffic and is evidence of the car’s inherently cautious programming. Perhaps too cautious? Waymo, as we noted last week, was similarly criticized in a deeply reported article by The Information for its alleged struggles with merging into high-speed traffic.
It makes sense, then, that a significant portion of driverless crashes have involved a human-operated vehicle rear-ending the self-driving vehicle.
That dynamic raises an interesting philosophical exercise in the context of our how-safe-is-safe debate:
Driverless cars are extremely cautious; programatically disinclined to execute risky manuevers.
Meanwhile human drivers can be aggressive and often take illegal maneuvers (e.g., running red lights, speeding, rolling stops at metered control signals) for the sake of convenience. Human drivers also are conditioned to expect the same behavior from other motorists. An AV programmed to strictly adhere to the rules of the road or to otherwise drives cautiously is less able to negotiate human drivers’ transgressions.
Driverless cars are often compared to teen drivers, both said to be still learning the nuances of the road. But what if a better comparison is to the aging driver: overwhelmed by a sea of aggressive drivers and unwilling to match their speed or recklessness?
So, devil’s advocate time: Is programming autonomous vehicles to strictly follow the rules of the road making them, and in turn the road at large, less safe?
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2. A house on wheels. No, not that kind.
Swedish luxury carmaker Volvo this week unveiled an all-electric, autonomous concept car that is as much a reinventing of a conventional car as it is a complete reimagining an an autonomous one.
Indeed, the new modular protype is equal parts short-haul flight replacement and a means of commuting to work. Not only does the car lack conventional operational controls, but it completely elminated driver-side doors—opting instead for a single, curb-side entry point.
As with virtually all concept cars, you’re unlikely to see the prototype in the wild, but the concept offers an interesting glimpse into the industry’s expectations for the evolution of personal transport.
3. Rise of the Shuttle
On-demand autonomous ridesharing and driverless last-mile delivery remain the primary fixations of the public’s imagination. But what if the urban experience were to be more acutely, and expeditiously, shaped by something decidedly less provocative. Like the humble bus.
First- and last-mile connectivity is perhaps the most pernicious challenge to mass transit adoption, but public transportation-challenged cities across the world increasingly have begun turning to fixed-route autonomous shuttles to plug the holes in their transit strategies.
Beginning tomorrow, Calgary, Canada, will commence a public driverless shuttle program to connect two of the city’s biggest tourist destinations. And it’s not the only one, as The Driverless Commute’s Eric Tanenblatt wrote recently in a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“Already, major cities in Europe and Asia are using fixed-route autonomous shuttles to complement larger public transit networks. In Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo is operating an autonomous shuttle which will be integrated into the city’s mass transportation network. Similarly, the Swiss town of Schaffhausen layered autonomous shuttles into public transit in March to address its first-/last-mile problem. San Francisco, whose traffic woes are as notorious as our own, will launch a driverless shuttle program early next year.”
Not everyone is jumping on the shuttle bandwagon, though, Eric continues:
“[Atlanta’s Beltline development] has done more to revitalize in-town neighborhoods than any project in the last 30 years, and accordingly deserves robust transit options. But light rail, for which just seven miles of rail would cost taxpayers approximately $500 million and might not be completed for 20 years, isn’t the answer.
“Instead of spending hundreds of millions on a mode of transit whose utility window is both distant and very narrow, Atlanta could leverage autonomous shuttles almost immediately at a minuscule fraction of the cost. At [San Francisco’s] negotiated price, Atlanta could purchase nearly 2,000 self-driving shuttles for the same price of seven miles of light rail along the Beltline. And unlike light rail, these shuttles, which each hold 12 passengers, could be strategically re-deployed elsewhere for special functions, like a Super Bowl.”
4. Know it before your competitors
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