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What driverless cars mean for you, the Inland Northwest and beyond

click to enlarge Are you ready for a driverless future?
  • Are you ready for a driverless future?

Imagine a future where cars that drive themselves rule the road.

Imagine you're heading to your job in downtown Spokane, typing away on your laptop, when your car gets an automated message about a broken water main on Riverside. What do you do? You keep typing because your car automatically adjusts its route to avoid the mess, taking you right to your office door via the quickest alternate route possible.

Imagine your family owns only one car, and the kids want to go paddleboarding in Coeur d'Alene, but Mom has to work and Dad promised to get grandma to her doctor's appointment on the South Hill. What do you do? Simply program the car to travel, human-free, between all the destinations, picking up and dropping off the family through the day.

Imagine that you want to take the kids to Disneyland, but flights are so expensive. Order up a long-distance driverless car — sleepy drivers a thing of the past — and you'll be in the the Happiest Place on Earth in no time.

A hands-free future is coming if you believe the auto-industry engineers, the tech-company futurists, the economists and the academics — pretty much anyone involved with transportation and America's infrastructure.

Once you come to terms with the idea of "autonomous" vehicles, steering their way using cameras and radar, or "connected" cars talking to each other through onboard computers, it's hard not to go all sci-fi in your head. But it's all the easier because people in the transportation field have seen driverless cars coming for years — and the technology is finally catching up with their wild imaginations.

Here in the Northwest, transportation professionals are thinking about what driverless cars will mean for city streets, public transportation, education and the economy.

Rhonda Young, a traffic engineer and civil engineering professor at Gonzaga University, sees a future where roads are filled by autonomous and connected vehicles, and stoplights are unnecessary because the cars are "talking" to each other electronically. She thinks Americans will embrace driverless technology relatively quickly, like they did color television and smartphones. While acknowledging there are several steps to come, she says that driverless cars could be the true transportation game-changer of our lifetime.

"We're always kind of struggling with these adaptations of technology, but obviously automated and connected cars is a whole other level," Young says. "It's the big jump. We've always been forward-thinking, but we recognize now the pace and the jump that we're seeing. It's like the automobile and horse-drawn carriage kind of leap."

click to enlarge Futurama, a 1939 version of the driveless-car future.
  • Futurama, a 1939 version of the driveless-car future.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

The idea of driverless cars goes back decades. We've already given computers control over things like missiles, tractors, sailboats and airplanes. Cars are a last frontier of automation mostly because of one unpredictable variable — us humans. But we've been working on the idea for many years.

One of the first experiments in self-driving cars came at the 1939 World's Fair, where designer Norman Bel Geddes built a Futurama ride that introduced the idea of cars traveling in railroad-like tracks. By the 1960s, scientists started playing with the idea of "artificial intelligence" in cars that could navigate city streets on their own. In the '80s, German engineers designed a Mercedes that drove several hundreds of miles autonomously, and by the early 2000s the U.S. military was hosting competitions in hopes of finding autonomous vehicles capable of taking over some of its combat needs.

The constant push for technological advances resulted in better software, radar and laser sensors. You've probably seen some of the advances achieved along the way: sensors that tell you when you're drifting between lanes, cars that "self-park" or brake automatically in emergencies.

Now, cars with varying levels of automation are being tested across the country, from Google's cars (now going by the name Waymo after Google spun off the project) around its Silicon Valley campus to the streets of Pittsburgh, where Uber started testing driverless cars-for-hire in the fall. In Detroit, America's auto industry is embracing a driverless future, with companies like Chrysler teaming up with Waymo and GM collaborating with Lyft in an effort to catch up with pioneers like Tesla; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee test-"drove" a semi-autonomous Tesla just a couple of weeks ago in Olympia. The federal government (see "The Trump Effect") has largely stayed out of the way of innovation while making sure that cars from different manufacturers will all be able to communicate with each other electronically within a few years.

SLOWING YOUR ROLL

The No. 1 reason we're steering toward a driverless future is safety, experts say. Eliminating the human element in moving vehicles also eliminates the cause of most car accidents.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of fatal crashes (32,166), total crashes (6.3 million) and crashes involving injuries (2.44 million) all increased in 2015, the most recent year for which the NHTSA has full stats, over the previous years, while the number of vehicle miles traveled remained essentially the same. In other words, 96 people died in car accidents every day in 2015, the majority of them because of drivers being drunk, distracted or speeding, or reacting to conditions in a way that caused a lethal accident.

Young, the Gonzaga professor and traffic engineer, sees a future where connected cars will help lower those numbers, their communication tools, radars and sensors telling cars when to stop and avoid accidents. And when driverless cars have access to fully geo-mapped cityscapes, Spokane will likely no longer see semi-trucks regularly crashing into downtown underpasses.

In the future, Young says, "with a truck, it knows and will say, 'I'm 14 feet tall,' and the moment you turn a corner, there will be a [data-sharing] unit saying, 'Wait, wait, you're too tall! You stop now!'"

Young is currently managing a $7 million U.S. Department of Transportation connected-vehicle project on Interstate 80 across Wyoming, one of three DOT pilots and the only one tracking how connected vehicles will work on relatively sparse stretches of rural highway, with occasionally severe weather; the other pilot programs are in Manhattan and on Florida's Tampa Hillsborough Expressway. By adding connectivity devices in various freight trucks and highway patrol cars, Young and her team are studying how well connected vehicles let each other know about weather obstacles like snowdrifts, as well as accidents on the road ahead.

Commerce might be the second-most-common answer to what's driving driverless technology. Young expects the first adopters to be businesses like the taxi industry and long-haul trucking firms. Detroit's automakers seem completely on board; Young says she gets the sense from the industry that "they realize their future is in technology," and they see driverless technology as a bit of a new lease on life after their industry nearly collapsed. While federal regulators have largely stuck to broad safety and communication guidelines, Young says, automobile and technology companies have been left to innovate.

"They see that there are markets for additional systems, or selling the data — packaging and selling it," Young says. "There's a lot of excitement because they see lots of information-technology potential, too. It's not just the federal government saying, 'You've got to do this.'"

BETWEEN HERE AND THERE

We're a few years away from seeing driverless cars pop up across the country. Realistically, it will be decades before all the studies have been concluded and the technology advances to the point where we can kick back and let our on-board computer take the wheel.

Before then, myriad issues have to be addressed. We're talking about an almost complete reimagination of things like automobile insurance, urban planning and traffic engineering, plus a world of still-unknowns. Those changes will take intellectual, political and financial investments nearly every step of the way.

E. Susan Meyer, CEO of the Spokane Transit Authority, believes that driverless technology could offer mass transit some exciting ways to better serve the public. "Transit doesn't exist in a vacuum," Meyer says via email. "Smart transit (planning) is one element of smart urban planning. Moving people efficiently and cost-effectively will likely continue to be a requirement even if the way transit service is delivered may change."

People in her field have certainly been talking about vehicle automation the past few years, and she says the exciting aspect for her is "the opportunity to see the development of technology that could truly transform transportation in my professional lifetime." That being said, Meyer notes that there are plenty of challenges ahead when it comes to driverless cars.

"If everyone now traveling on a bus or train starts to ride alone in a driverless vehicle, then there will be many, many more cars moving the same number of people," Meyer says. "Given the likelihood of greater vehicle miles traveled, communities will face important choices. How do we balance the allocation of public space to (more) vehicles and to people in the form of bike trails and sidewalks?"

Some see autonomous vehicles as a direct threat to mass transit. Last summer, the Seattle Times published a column by Bryan Mistele, CEO of a connected-car company in Kirkland, in which he railed against a $54 billion transit expansion that, he argued, would be made obsolete by autonomous vehicles. The Seattle Transit Blog cried foul, scoffing at the idea that these vehicles will effectively reduce congestion.

Nevertheless, the eventual emergence of driverless cars will also have real-life, bread-and-butter consequences for families, raising questions about the long-term effects of such a dramatic change in America's travel habits.

If, as Young believes, long-haul trucking and taxi companies are the first to adopt driverless vehicles en masse, "those are areas where you have jobs that are accessible, and they don't require a college degree," Young says. "So what's going to happen to those people?

"I have a personal interest in the social implications of it. People are going to lose their jobs. The changes in the workforce are going to be dramatic."

click to enlarge Trucking is likely to be one of the first self-driven sectors.
  • Trucking is likely to be one of the first self-driven sectors.

ROBOTS IN THE WORKFORCE

According to 2016 employment numbers for Spokane County, there are more than 6,000 jobs in categories that involve driving: people behind the wheel of buses, taxis, delivery trucks and long-haul semis. There are another 1,300 or so people working in automotive maintenance and repair; mechanics, tire installers and auto-body experts.

Clearly, the impacts to the labor market as it stands could be substantial. Yet it's not all gloom and doom.

"There are opportunities when a new technology comes in for other markets to emerge," explains Mark Holmgren, a professor of economics at Eastern Washington University who teaches micro- and behavioral economics.

"There might be a transition period, but eventually the unemployment due to that technology will absolve because people will find other ways of being employed," Holmgren continues.

Even when humans are removed from the picture, not all jobs related to driving are going to be obsolete. Those robo-cars still need maintenance. Fleet and private car owners still need insurance in some form (it's up in the air where that liability falls, on the manufacturer or the owner), and we'll still need to build and maintain roadways to maneuver around cities and rural landscapes. Jobs that specialize in repairing and maintaining the software and hardware operating these intelligent vehicles will also emerge.

Researchers in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin have released several studies examining the multifaceted impacts of automated vehicles, including their effect on the U.S. economy. Sectors beyond those directly related to driving will face change. In a report presented last month, authors Lewis Clements and Kara Kockelman explore how fewer collisions due to automation not only may decrease the need for auto repairs, but also medical care related to accident injuries, police officers tasked with responding to traffic incidents, and legal services for people in accidents.

When cars become smarter, safer and more convenient to use thanks to on-demand services like Uber and Lyft (but sans driver), the University of Texas report also projects that people in urban environments might feel less inclined to own a car. We also won't have to worry about parking, and traffic likely will be smoother. This ease of use, however, could prompt us to use cars even more than we now do. Some studies expect that the overall miles traveled per car will go up, requiring a quicker turnover of fleets or individual cars due to wear and tear. This facet would then boost the manufacturing of new cars.

As mentioned by Gonzaga's Young, commercial trucking stands to be one of the first industries to take advantage of automated vehicles. With more than 3 million freight drivers in the U.S., self-driving trucks could enable trucking companies overall to cut hundreds of billions of dollars in annual wages.

CHANGING CAR CULTURE

A decade from now, will that brand-new Toyota Prius parked in your garage be obsolete? Maybe. It also might be the last "normal" car you purchase, since on average, owners are driving their cars for about 11 years before getting a new ride. It could also be the last car you actually need to own.

Though the timeline of autonomous vehicle technology rollout varies widely depending on whom you talk to, we probably won't see completely driverless cars as a majority on our roads for at least another 30 years or so. And as that technology advances, the phasing out of the non-automated cars we drive now will be very gradual.

"I would say there are a lot of people who are very bullish about how quickly this technology will be adopted," says Don MacKenzie, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington who also leads the university's Sustainable Transportation Lab. Research there focuses on economic and environmental impacts of new transportation technology, and the intersections of that technology with behavior and policy.

"This is a technology with unprecedented value to consumers in terms of safety and comfort, but the flipside of that is the technology is also unprecedented in the level of cost and complexity," MacKenzie continues. "You have to believe that not only can the industry do this, but faster than any other technology in its history when this is the most complex and expensive."

Right now, unless you're the type who loves to geek out about our technological future's vast potential to change every aspect of daily life, you might think driverless cars are pretty darn weird. And you wouldn't be alone. The most recent numbers gathered in 2014 by the Pew Research Center show that, in general, Americans are fairly evenly split on the idea of riding in a robo-car. About 50 percent say they wouldn't ride in a car they have no control of, but those numbers also vary when factoring in education levels (59 percent of college grads favor the technology) and rural vs. urban locales (51 to 52 percent of urban/suburban folks would give it a try, while only 36 percent of rural residents would.)

Yet these opinions are going to change quickly as the technology advances and becomes more widely available to consumers.

"I suspect the way this happens in reality is more and more people end up with an increased level of partial automation in cars, where they can increasingly disengage," MacKenzie says. "If you dump this on people as 'This is a self-driving car,' some will be all over that, and some are reluctant to embrace that. The challenge is, how do you get this to people in a way where they are comfortable learning with it gradually?"

Right now, semi-autonomous vehicles on the market are only at automation Level 2 (see "Levels of Autonomy" on page 21). A car at this level can take over driving tasks when directed, but a human still has full control over the system and would need to intervene when alerted. This includes Tesla's Autopilot feature available in its current models, which are also being equipped with "full self-driving hardware" that can allow for upgrades to more advanced levels of automation down the road. To be an early adopter of Tesla's Autopilot tech, you'd need to spend about $71,000 for its Model S sedan. Reserved orders for the maker's new Model 3 start production later this year; that model is considered a more "budget-friendly" option, with its $35,000 base price.

Costs, timeline and opinions aside, perhaps one of the most beneficial features to users of this future technology is increased accessibility in populations who can't, for whatever reason, drive cars as they exist today. The disabled, elderly and even kids could hop into a Level 5 car — one that is fully autonomous and requires no human input other than pickup or destination information — and head off to work, school, appointments, etc., without ever needing a driver's license, if such licenses even exist at that point.

MacKenzie says that specific demographic-level benefits of car automation is something he hopes to begin researching soon. "We can measure benefits to the consumer in terms of safety, but also in terms of how it affects travel or time, and does it reduce the perceived cost of commuting," he says.

In other words, when riding in a car becomes a passive activity for all passengers, the value of your time spent traveling via car goes up because you can work, watch TV, sleep, eat, socialize. This potential creates a complicated picture for a future which many hope brings reductions in congestion and to the cost of driving.

"People could travel a lot more — our assessment is a 60 percent increase in miles traveled, which is very assumption dependent, and depends on how this technology affects people's value of time spent in their car." MacKenzie explains. "If we want to avoid blowing up congestion and travel demand, we should look at moving toward on-demand mobility."

That Uber-like, shared-fleet model, allowing users to summon vehicles on-demand, would make not owning a car even more enticing to many urban dwellers. Yet, as mentioned by STA's Meyer, such a model could also present major headaches for existing public transit systems.

It's easy to simultaneously feel baffled by and to get swept up in the almost too-good-to-be-true benefits that a driverless future may offer. But as with any major societal change that's still a long way from reality, the outcomes here are not entirely clear, especially when it comes to the when and how.

Still, the future of transportation stands to undergo the biggest changes we've seen since the introduction of automobiles to the American landscape more than a century ago. The newfangled advancements made us marvel then, and we can expect to feel a similar sense of wonderment when, in the very near future of the current millennia, our cars become robots. ♦


Levels of Autonomy

The following global standards define six recognized levels of vehicle automation, as defined by SAE International (formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers):

Level 0: No automation — A human driver performs all driving tasks.

Level 1: Driver assistance — This includes features like adaptive cruise control or parking and lane-keeping assistance, but the driver still controls nearly all driving functions.

Level 2: Partial automation — The car helps the driver with things like speed, braking and staying in its lane — essentially offering hands- and feet-free driving — but the driver still has to pay attention to the environment and intervene at any time. (Currently, Tesla's autopilot feature is at this stage of automation.)

Level 3: Conditional automation — The next step for cars on the consumer market. This level of car can handle most driving functions on its own, but likely will still require human intervention in case of inclement weather, traffic or other "confusing" scenarios.

Level 4: High automation — This car can do almost everything on its own and is considered fully autonomous, but it might need human driver control in, say, severe weather.

Level 5: Full automation — All driving modes in all conditions and locations are controlled by the car's system; humans have no role in operating the vehicle other than summoning the car and telling it where to go. (CHEY SCOTT)


The Trump Effect

The majority of players in the race to develop cars of the future so far seem satisfied with Elaine Chao, President Trump's pick to head the U.S. Department of Transportation. With experience as both a former Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush and Deputy Secretary of Transportation under his father, plus other past political leadership roles, Chao (whose husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) has been called a "pragmatic" and "moderate" pick for the job. Chao's leadership of the DOT will likely reflect Trump's preference for lighter industry regulations. During her confirmation hearing, Chao discussed this hands-off approach, saying she doesn't want federal regulations to "dampen creativity and innovation" in the development of self-driving technology.

In addition to self-driving car regulation, Chao will be tasked with carrying out one of Trump's other major campaign promises: a plan to invest a trillion dollars into repairs and improvements to the U.S. transportation infrastructure — a system that will also need to evolve to accommodate self-driving cars. (CHEY SCOTT)


click to enlarge Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving project, is testing a car in Kirkland, Washington.
  • Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving project, is testing a car in Kirkland, Washington.

Testing in Washington

A year ago, Kirkland (a few miles northeast of Seattle) became the third city to host testing of Google's self-driving technology, adding to a list that includes Austin, Phoenix (also added in 2016), and on roads around Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Also — in case you missed it — the former Google project is now a subsidiary of its parent company, Alphabet, and operates as an independent entity called Waymo, which represents its mission to develop "a new way forward in mobility."

Based at Google's Kirkland campus, the white Lexus SUV is outfitted with multiple cameras and sensors, notably sporting a large black dome on its roof. An operator/driver still sits behind the wheel as the car maneuvers around the urban setting, using those sensors and cameras to create detailed maps of the area.

A leader in the pack to develop self-driving cars, Waymo so far has logged more than 2 million miles on public roads, and its first completely autonomous car — sans steering wheel and pedals — took to the streets in October 2015. This year, Waymo plans to boost its self-driving fleet with a hundred 2017 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans, though it hasn't announced yet if those cars will join the Kirkland Lexus. (CHEY SCOTT)

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