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SELF DRIVING CARS: CITY PLANNERS SPEAK UP

By Allen L Phillips

A recent traffic fatality in Florida, while still under investigation, appears to have been caused by the driver not paying attention while his Tesla was on "autopilot".  The beta-test system on the Tesla warns drivers each time it is activated to pay attention so that they can take control of the car in an emergency.  The car's limited sensors failed to "see" a white truck and trailer rig crossing the road in front of it.

This situation is exactly what the nation's city transportation planners want to avoid and, therefore, have recommended an all or nothing approach to driver assist technology in urban centers.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) is an organization that represents 46 major cities in North America.  There are thirteen member cities on the west coast, from Vancouver, BC in the north to San Diego in the south. 

In late June NACTO released a policy statement on automated vehicles with five specific recommendations to all interested parties, including federal regulators, state departments of transportation and vehicle manufacturers.  They are as follows:

1)       "Plan for fully automated vehicles, not half measures".  NACTO notes that partial systems that require the driver to take over in a dangerous situation have been shown to encourage unsafe driving behavior (see Tesla fatality in Florida).  Drivers already have difficulty paying attention since nearly all accidents are caused by driver error.  Semi-automated systems will only make it worse.

2)       "Rethink our streets and expressways".  NACTO says that automated vehicle technology will dramatically increase capacity of existing freeways and expressways and make some currently planned expansions unnecessary.  I hope I live long enough to see the traffic on I-5 improved. (Probably not.)

3)       "Ensure safe operation on city streets, including limiting automated vehicles to a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour".  They say that regulators and automakers should work with cities to ensure that automated vehicles can operate safely where more people are choosing to live in dense urban environments.  This would seem to imply that driver operated vehicles will not be subject to the same limitation.  If sharing the same roads I don't see how that works.

4)       "Create data-sharing requirements for automated vehicles".  City officials apparently spend a lot of time digging up data for analysis.  They are asking for the makers to provide for standardized data sharing to lighten the burden and provide better information.  They make no mention of privacy concerns.

5)       "Change planning models to incorporate the expected disruptive impact of this technology".  Current travel demand modeling apparently assumes that times per trip will not change with automated vehicles.  In fact, research shows that travel times could be reduced as much as 80% with this technology.  80% is a stunning number but would probably only be reached when all cars on the road are automated.  Thus the actual effect will be spread over many years as automated vehicles replace the  existing. 

Oh well, I guess my daily commute, which is 20 to 25 minutes in the morning but averages 45 minutes to an hour at night, isn't going to change any time soon.  Will my grandkids enjoy faster commutes, or will population increase so as to neutralize the effects?

So then what's the real benefit of automated vehicles?  Fewer accidents.  If you believe the experts, far fewer and far less of the related costs.  The collision repair industry can't be looking forward to this.  But again, it won't happen overnight.